Les Moonves CBS 2017

There were various entities interested in acquiring W magazine from Condé Nast, one of which was allegedly Les Moonves.

Former longtime editor in chief of W, Stefano Tonchi, whose $1 million lawsuit over his claimed wrongful termination has drawn Condé’s own lawsuit in response, wrote in a Friday answer to Condé’s suit that he was told of another interested buyer late in the sale process who was apparently Moonves. His name purportedly came up because Tonchi had been unwilling to finalize his employment agreement with Surface Media and reports on that company’s history had caused friction among the larger staff, leaving the success of the Surface deal in doubt.     

In comes the other alleged interested buyer, described in a May 27 e-mail from Brad Stoutenburgh, head of investments at Condé’s parent company Advance Publications, to Tonchi as “a prominent former CBS executive, who has come forth recently and expressed a desire to acquire W.” Sources have noted that while the full e-mail, reviewed by WWD, does not mention Moonves by name, he is in fact the person being described.

A spokesman for Moonves emphatically denied that he was ever looking at the title. “Mr. Moonves did not at any time make an offer to buy or invest in W. Rumors or claims to the contrary are utterly false,” the spokesman said.

In his e-mail, Stoutenburgh adds that the interested buyer has “extensive experience in video (one of your identified strategic priorities)” and identifies him as a man who has a “family connection to the staff.” Moonves’ daughter, Sara Moonves, is a stylist, who in 2017 became style director of W. She subsequently took over the role of editor in chief when Surface bought the magazine, a final deal in which Les Moonves is said to have absolutely no involvement.

A spokesman for Condé declined to comment.

Nevertheless, Moonves — who, despite denials, left as the head of CBS late last year after multiple allegations of sexual harassment and abuse in professional settings going back many years — has started his own company. Filings in Los Angeles show the former executive registered the names Moon Rise Productions and Moon Rise Technologies in October 2018. According to reports from Variety and The New York Times, Moonves took office space in Los Angeles around the same time, and his company is looking at content production, distribution and streaming.

It is entirely possible that Stoutenburgh was merely posturing in an effort to ensure Tonchi remained in his position through W’s sale to Surface, be he did write in the e-mail that the new interested buyer, presumed to be Moonves, “could be a viable and actionable alternative option for W.”

“We believe this interested party has both the financial means and the ability to complete a transaction very quickly,” Stoutenburgh claimed. Moonves also has other connections to Condé, making his purported interest not something totally out of the blue, like his friendship with Condé artistic director Anna Wintour. Lynn Hirschberg, W’s editor at large, is said to be another friend, who has written a couple of pieces on Moonves in the past, one glowing profile in 2005 and a Q&A in 2002, both for the New York Times. There was an early profile of him she did in 1995 for New York magazine. All focused on his work as a TV executive

Should Condé come back and argue that this was in fact nothing more than a carrot stick to get Tonchi to stay on through the sale to Surface so the price would not be affected, it could hamper its strenuous argument that Tonchi was terminated with “cause,” and so denied severance, for his being a “disloyal” and “faithless servant” during the sale process. Tonchi basically argues that if he was such a bad employee, he shouldn’t have been kept on at all.

As for those claims and others from Condé, such as Tonchi speaking to interested buyers without the knowledge of Greenhill, the bank overseeing the process, or that he improperly disclosed any confidential information, he denied them. 

Tonchi claimed he was asked to meet with everyone and specifically tasked with soliciting interested buyers early on in the process, which began in summer 2018 with an initial asking price of $10 million. The ultimate sale price to Surface is thought to be somewhere around $6 million.

He also denied having any involvement in purported decisions by some senior W staffers to refuse to meet with Surface chief executive officer Marc Lotenberg. Tonchi claimed that Hirschberg initially declined to meet with Lotenberg and was asked to sign a non-disclosure agreement. Hirschberg however denied this was the case.

“There was no NDA, period,” Hirschberg said. “I didn’t sign anything, nor was I asked to. I had absolutely no hesitation in meeting with Marc.”  

As for Condé’s suggestion that Tonchi’s alleged actions had something to do with a prospective deal with C Ventures falling apart, he said that simply came down to C Ventures’ own business judgment. “Plaintiff’s understanding is that C Ventures determined not to proceed with the sale process because it decided that W’s financial situation was not acceptable,” he wrote.

Editor’s Note: This story was updated after it’s initial publication to reflect the position of Lynn Hirschberg regarding claims in the lawsuit. 

For More, See:

Condé Nast Hits Back Hard at Stefano Tonchi’s W Magazine Lawsuit

Condé’s Roger Lynch Talks Video, Acquisitions and Layoffs

Anna Wintour, David Remnick Sticking With Condé Nast

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