LOS ANGELES – As president of CBS Entertainment, Kelly Kahl, 50, oversees all aspects of the television network's entertainment division, including programming, scheduling, marketing and promotion, digital initiatives and research. He also sits on the board of the CBS-owned cable channel Pop.
Kahl's skills as a network TV scheduler were developed during his years growing up in Burlington, Wis., where he spent Saturday mornings watching cartoons. Every year he would study the new lineup. "I would notice that 'Super Friends' went from 8:30 to 9 and I would wonder 'why would they do something like that?' " he recalled. "I had a natural fascination for why shows came and why shows left."
He learned the cruel outcome of low ratings when his favorite show, a Mel Brooks-created ABC sitcom called "When Things Were Rotten," was pulled from the air after 13 weeks. He watched the subversive show in another room while his father, an industrial arts teacher, and mother, who raises prizewinning basset hounds, were tuned into "Tony Orlando and Dawn." "I thought it was the greatest show ever," he said. "When it was canceled, I was crushed."
After graduating from the University of Wisconsin with a communications degree, Kahl headed to Los Angeles to get his master's degree at USC's Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism. ("When you're in the middle of Wisconsin there is no sense you're going to succeed in the TV business.") He snared an internship at Lorimar, the production company that made such network hits as "Dallas." The company was in the middle of a leadership shake-up when he got there. "There was a lot of intrigue around the halls," he said.
When the dust cleared, Leslie Moonves became the new head of Lorimar, and Kahl began working for the boss he has had for virtually his entire career in the TV business. "I usually say he's my 'TV dad' because that's what it feels like," Kahl said.
Lorimar was absorbed by Warner Bros. Television, which under the leadership of Moonves generated two TV mega-hits, "Friends" and "ER." Kahl rose to head of research at the studio and had the happy job of analyzing the massive audience for the shows that were part of NBC's vaunted "Must See TV" lineup in the 1990s.
Kahl also ran focus groups where he learned how people looked to TV as a respite from their daily lives. "I still maintain that a vast majority of the audience works an 8- or 10-hour day, they come home, they eat dinner, they want to sit on their couch and put their feet up and really just be entertained," he said.
Kahl moved to CBS shortly after Moonves arrived at the network as entertainment president in 1995. While Moonves replenished CBS with new hits such as "Everybody Loves Raymond," "Survivor," "CSI" and "NCIS," Kahl scheduled them in a way to maximize their ratings performance without disrupting viewer habits. "Consistency has been a big part of our success," Kahl said. "We'd try not to move a show unless there is a compelling reason to do so."
Even as he has risen in the executive ranks, Kahl said he never tires of talking TV with enthusiastic viewers, including his childhood hero Gorman Thomas, the gritty Milwaukee Brewers center fielder of the 1970s and '80s. Kahl got an introduction through his high school baseball coach, who worked for the team.