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The Prime (Time) Of Nancy Tellem


Nancy Tellem is on her second espresso, and it's only 8:30 a.m. For the president of CBS Paramount Television Network Entertainment Group (CBS), the days don't get more stressful than this. It's late April, and the "upfronts," in which TV networks unveil their new shows to advertisers, are three weeks away. Tellem supervises programming not only for the CBS network but also CW, the newly merged network of money-losing WB and UPN. And as head of CBS's TV studio, she's shepherding through 15 pilots for the two networks and one to be sold to Fox Broadcasting Co. (NWS).

During the whirlwind countdown of meetings, e-mails, and urgent phone calls before the upfronts, Tellem, 53, shuttles between CBS's Television City operations in Los Angeles and its headquarters in Manhattan. Her time is filled with watching pilots and negotiating with nervous agents and studio brass. In one difficult decision, Tellem schedules CBS's long-running hit sitcom The King of Queens, to start at midseason to accommodate its star, Kevin James, who is committed to a movie project. Tellem is also preparing to cancel the ratings-challenged former WB show Everwood. Still ahead on this caffeine-fueled morning: a four-hour casting session for reality stalwart Survivor. Tellem peppers contestant hopefuls with tough questions. "Some of them know the game and will tell you what they think you want to hear," says the former litigator. "We're looking for real drama, real people."

Like Tellem really needs more drama. Few Hollywood executives have a fuller plate these days. The daughter of an anesthesiologist mother and a surgeon father, she grew up in an Oakland suburb and got hooked on TV as a girl through fan magazines the networks used to mail out in the summers to promote new shows. Today Tellem is a top player in a TV industry in flux. CBS itself is a new entity, split from parent Viacom Inc. (VIA) in January to create a more focused TV and radio operation. Tellem's role includes overseeing CBS's programming, the biggest part of the $14.5 billion company. The challenge is to fight the view among some on Wall Street that CBS is a slow-growing, old-style media outfit, most recently by helping to launch broadband offerings on its Web site, such as innertube, a download channel.

"A TOUGH JOB"

But for every exciting new push into New Media, there's a headache from the traditional side of the house. Both ABC and Fox this year have chipped away at CBS's massive lead among TV households, which is down this season by 2%. In a direct assault, ABC said May 16 it would put its hot show Grey's Anatomy up against CBS's hit CSI on Thursday nights this fall. Delivering on CBS CEO Leslie Moonves' vow to make CW (which launches in September) profitable in its first year will be Tellem's task as well. "Nancy has a tough job this year," says Moonves. "But she's talented, extremely organized, and is better than anyone I know at making a team work as efficiently as it can."

If there's anyone who knows just how aggressively Tellem tackles problems, it's Moonves. The two have been nearly inseparable professionally since 1987, creating hits such as Friends and ER at Warner Bros.' TV studio. At the Tiffany network, they developed megahits like Survivor and CSI: Crime Scene Investigation, which rejuvenated CBS after years as the "geezer" network and made it the most-watched in five of the last seven years. The formula was simple. Moonves, the former actor with the golden gut for programming, schmoozes the stars, picks the hot shows, and often takes the limelight. Tellem stays in the background, she says by design, to make sure the shows work, negotiating hard with studios, keeping producers on budget, and occasionally taking a hard line with actors.

Moonves and Tellem may talk by phone two or three times a day, and after so many years together, they don't hold back. "We yell and we scream at each other, but when that's over, she's family," says Moonves. After Tellem's third son was born, Moonves suggested she work two days a week from home, but he quickly pulled her back into the office, say insiders, because he knew he needed her to help him at Warner Bros.

No question, Moonves is clearly the one in charge, but Tellem is increasingly the go-to person for CBS's sprawling TV operation. Her support team includes Nina Tassler at CBS and Dawn Ostroff, formerly of UPN, making up a trio of top female executives rare in Hollywood's macho culture. Tellem is even drawing praise from the boss for doing something considered his forte -- picking hot shows. Tellem was an early, vocal backer of the Julia Louis-Dreyfus sitcom The New Adventures of Old Christine, which became a surprise hit this season. Last year, she helped land the new sitcom The Class from Friends co-creator David Crane, a friend from Tellem's days at Warner Bros. CBS won a bidding war with NBC to get the new show, in part because of Crane's ties to Tellem, says Warner Bros. Chairman Barry M. Meyer. When CSI creator Jerry Bruckheimer took the series to CBS in 2002 after ABC said no, it was Tellem who persuaded Canadian studio Alliance Atlantis Communications to pay half the show's costs, says CSI producer Anthony E. Zuiker. "This show doesn't get made without her convincing them to take the risk," he says. Even now, he says, Tellem authorizes extra spending -- such as the $50,000 to hire rapper Kid Rock for a guest spot on CSI: New York.

Outside the CBS family, Tellem is seen as a hard-edged negotiator. When Moonves brought her to CBS in 1997, an early assignment was cajoling studios into allowing CBS to be their partner, sharing costs but also half the profits. One of the first to agree to this arrangement was Sony Corp. (SNE), which jointly produced The King of Queens with CBS. Some studios cheered when she fired CSI co-stars George Eads and Jorja Fox in 2004 for threatening to walk out after demanding higher pay. Having called their bluff, Tellem rehired them when the two came back after dropping their demands. "When I don't think I'm being treated fairly," offers Tellem, "I don't mind taking the gloves off."

Her four years as a practicing lawyer in Los Angeles may have given Tellem the resolve to deal with outsize egos. Among her first jobs in the early 1980s was chasing down people who claimed to be heirs to Howard Hughes's estate. Tellem then jumped to entertainment, working initially as the legal expert on famed lawyer F. Lee Bailey's short-lived 1982 show Lie Detector. Eventually she would end up working for Merv Griffin on his Wheel of Fortune show before moving to Lorimar Productions, where she met Moonves.

Nearly two decades later, Moonves is still depending on Tellem. With CBS's share price essentially flat since the Viacom split-up, trading at about $26, Moonves needs Tellem to help him keep CBS on top and build CW while pushing into wireless and the Internet. "It all starts with the content," she says. "If you aren't producing what people want to see, it doesn't matter how many platforms there are." With that, Tellem, clutching her espresso to go, heads off to grill some Survivor wannabes.

By Ronald Grover


The Good Business Issue
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