TCA: Nina Tassler, CBS (Executive Analysis)
Half the battle is showing up -- the spin is easy.
What she got right: She showed up. “Good morning, everybody. I’m here,” Tassler said, to laughs and a smattering of claps. After getting some kickback for CBS not scheduling an executive session for her (something every network does and, frankly, is expected to do), Tassler gamely arrived early to wedge the session into the early morning of CBS’s schedule and made it clear that not scheduling the session was in no way a slap at critics. “People step on my feet and I say I’m sorry,” Tassler said, about not being mean or rude (which, of course, she’s not). “It wasn’t a sign of disrespect.”
Tassler went so far as to admit these executive sessions take their toll. “This makes me a nervous wreck,” she said. “It’s a forum that’s challenging.” That may be true for her – and every entertainment president approaches these things differently – but Tassler has a network buzzing along nicely and, despite some content issues that were bound to come up, had a lot of success to tout. Beyond that, Tassler is a gem of a talker off the stage, with a wonderful sense of colorful language, pointed barbs and honesty. It’s something that she hasn’t entirely been able to bring to these sessions, where she sometimes opts for the dodge. More on the plus side: She stayed and was available (this is true of most entertainment presidents, but there was always the worry that over-protective CBS press folks would stuff her in a Town Car and send her away).
What she got wrong: Given the chance to say that the cumulative effect of the Monday comedies pushing the boundaries of taste might be a bit much and could be ratcheted back, Tassler gave no ground. “We don’t bring people in for a mass meeting about that quality of the shows.” And: “Each show is separate and unique unto itself…they’re a little risqué, but the characters are living truthfully in their relative situations.” Tassler fell back on the old “They push the boundaries but we’re a broadcaster” and thus held to standards and practices that keep everything in check. Which is fine enough, but a couple of sessions later, one of the most contentious TCA panels in memory happened when Michael Patrick King had to defend 2 Broke Girls against charges of racism, stereotypes and an over-reliance on wink-wink sex jokes. (He did a lousy job of it, by the way, and seemed as clueless in his defensiveness as CBS can sometimes be about content issues.) Often it seems like the fall-back defense is, hey, the ratings are great, what could we possibly be doing wrong? For example: “The fact that there is such strong ratings growth for all of them mean that those shows are resonating," Tassler said. "It means that the characters are resonating. It means that their dialogue is really landing with audiences. The shows are laugh out loud funny.” OK, no one was expecting Tassler to toss her successful comedies under the bus – a lot of critics don’t like those shows and sometimes the knee-jerk reaction at CBS is that our disdain is elitist so why address any issues at hand – but it’s clear that 2 Broke Girls and the upcoming Rob have tone issues (regarding race, specifically) that CBS could and should correct.
The takeaway: A little micromanaging from the top is really all that an extremely successful network like CBS probably needs to do – and talking about what might actually get done here and there is part of the job when a state of the network address comes around every six months. CBS is smart enough to know that even when you’re cruising in the ratings and adding only a couple of shows at midseason, there’s always something to talk about. And sometimes talking about success is not such a bad thing. Beyond the executive session, it might have been smart for CBS to have a panel for NYC 22 (formerly known as The 2-2), the Richard Price procedural that will premiere sometime in the spring. Though Tassler said there were no problems with the series and that it will launch with the promotional support of NCAA’s March Madness platform, not giving a series its own session before it goes on air has traditionally been a red flag to critics and reporters.
Quotes of note:
Tassler on the CBS comedies: “The shows are laugh out loud funny…It’s not a snicker or chuckle – they’re belly laughs.”
“I know so many of you in this room, and we’ve had so many conversations over the eight, nine years we’ve been doing it. And (the executive session) is a forum that is challenging. That being said, we had an amazing year. We had a phenomenal year. You have the stats. They’re really remarkable. And we’re incredibly proud. And I thought, you know what? How we achieved that success isn’t necessarily best expressed in sort of this warm and fuzzy room.”
Tassler on Mondays: “I know that we have an unbelievably devoted fan base for our comedies.”
Current status: “We’re No. 1 in viewers and adults 18-49. The audience is up in all ratings categories. Network TV ratings are up overall, and every network has something to cheer about. I think also one of the most daunting challenges that we’re facing this year is staying in that dominant position. In some ways I think it’s almost more challenging than staying there, holding onto that dominant position versus working your way up from the top.”
Tassler on The Good Wife: “We’re thrilled with the critical response and the awards and the attention the show gets. More importantly, the audience that does watch the show on Sunday night, it’s very upscale. It’s very female. And they’re very engaged. So we feel it was a very good move.”
Tassler on 2 Broke Girls (before that session arrived and the meltdown started): “Well, first of all, I think that they’re an equal opportunity offender. Everybody gets digs. And I think that our comments and our dialogue with Michael is, yes, continue to dimensionalize, continue to get more specific, continue to build them out.”
Tassler on unscripted programming: “We have a very, very heavy development slate this year in alternative, not only for summer, but next year as well. Our goal has always been in reality, you know, not necessarily follow the same path that everybody else follows. It’s really listening to our audience, knowing what they respond to. Having shows that have a stronger narrative drive seems to work for us better. We’re very proud of the success of our franchise shows, but we do have a very, very a very diverse roster of shows. And there are some competition. There are some performance shows. There are elimination shows.”
“One of the things we talk about in development and, just a little bit of a peek behind the curtain, is relevance. Why are we telling this story? Why are these characters how will these characters be relatable to our audience?” How this relates to Rob is anyone’s guess.
On what viewers are looking for: “Audiences need to engage with characters. We often talk, you know, why do people watch TV? Television’s an intimate medium. It’s in our living rooms. It’s in our bathrooms. It’s in our bedrooms — and we respect that. And our point is that the characters we try, and showrunners bring to us the characters we try to present to the audience are flawed, that they are on their own personal journeys, that there is a core morality to who they are. Ultimately, if they are in search of redemption, if they’re in search of finding their moral centers, those journeys have to be relatable to our audience.”
Lastly, a question to the theater major and musical lover who once tried to launch Viva Laughlin to an uninterested CBS audience: “As far as Smash goes, in my heart I love musical theater. I love musicals. I’m a big Glee watcher. I hope (Smash) it does well for (NBC). I think it’s important that in all of our respective jobs that we continue to explore, try to do new things. I feel looking at development for us into the fall we’ve got some really unique, clever ideas, some with music, some not.”