CBS Entertainment Chief and "Loudmouthed Feminist" Nina Tassler Reveals the Strategy Behind 'Supergirl' Gamble
Half her senior execs are female. One-third of her showrunners are, too. As the ACLU probes gender inequality in film, Tassler is a case study in what can happen with a lady at the top.
This story first appeared in the July 3 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.
A few years back, Nina Tassler attended a barbecue fundraiser with her husband, actor-director Jerry Levine. A famous basketball player — she won't say who — was escorted to her table and told he was about to meet the head of CBS Entertainment. "He stuck out his arm to shake my husband's hand," recalls Tassler.
So, yes, there is indeed a "woman problem" in Hollywood. But at a time when much of the town is wringing its hands over gender parity — as Oscar-winning actresses make political speeches from the podium ("It's our time to have wage equality!"), as hacked Sony emails reveal huge pay differences between male and female execs and stars, as the Sundance Institute releases studies on just how outdated attitudes in Hollywood are (25 percent think women directors "lack ambition"), as the ACLU asks federal agencies to open a gender discrimination investigation on the whole entertainment industry — there actually is a straightforward example of a woman on top who is changing the status quo and letting her network's success speak for itself (most of the time).
That would be the lady at the barbecue.
Tassler, 58, occupies a singular position in the television industry. She's the only female running a broadcast network (on her own, without a male co-head). True, the network she runs happens to be perceived as male-centric, often criticized for violent programming and gratuitous depictions of brutality toward women. But for more than a decade now, this self-described "loudmouthed feminist" has been making CBS a more female-friendly place, on and off camera. Half of her 12 top executives are women, including executive vp drama Christina Davis, executive vp comedy Julie Pernworth and executive vp daytime Angelica McDaniel. Only ABC — a network engineered in recent years to lure female viewers (and anyone else who enjoys Scandal) — has a higher percentage of female power (eight out of 13 of its top execs). During her tenure, Tassler has nurtured scores of female showrunners: Of CBS' 27 current and upcoming primetime series, about a quarter are run by women (Fox, by comparison, only has one run by a female, Ilene Chaiken on Empire).
And then there are CBS' shows, which lately have been subverting the network's macho reputation with a slew of new female headliners. "It wasn't my idea to have a middle-aged woman be the lead of the new CSI," notes Patricia Arquette, the 47-year-old star of CSI: Cyber (and the actress who made that impassioned speech about pay equality at the Oscars). "That was CBS' idea. They came up with that."
Julianna Margulies produces and stars in 'The Good Wife,' a CBS drama produced nearly entirely by women.
They also came up with Supergirl, arguably the biggest risk Tassler has taken since Viva Laughlin (you remember — or maybe you don't — the Las Vegas musical drama that lasted all of two episodes). A tweeny twist on the DC superhero (played by Melissa Benoist) arriving on CBS this fall — produced by Greg Berlanti (Arrow, The Flash) and Ali Adler (Glee) — Supergirl looks like an awkward fit for a network with the oldest viewership on the dial (average age: 59).
"There are themes and aspects [of Supergirl] that define the classic CBS leading lady," insists Tassler, defending the show's place on her lineup. "She is embracing her potential. She's juggling a lot of responsibility. I mean, she has to save the planet, but she also has a career."
Tassler has been able to take such superhuman risks because along with being the only solo female running a network, she has another unique attribute: She's the only network head who isn't part of the constant dialogue in Hollywood about who is (and isn't) on the hot seat. NBC's Bob Greenblatt would seem to be packing and unpacking his office tchotchkes with all the rumors swirling about his job; a resurgent Paul Lee of ABC has been said to be on the way out at numerous points in his five-year tenure; and Fox's Kevin Reilly got booted in May 2014, with his replacements, Dana Walden and Gary Newman, keeping their other jobs at 20th Century Fox Television as their network fights to get out of fourth place. But Tassler, among the longest-tenured entertainment chiefs (surpassing even NBC's legendary Brandon Tartikoff), has a 28-year relationship with CBS Corp. president and CEO Leslie Moonves, who tends to keep his best execs around for decades. And she has steered her network to the top of the ratings. Though NBC does better with the coveted 18-to-49 demographic, CBS has been No. 1 in total viewers for the past 12 of 13 seasons. Most likely, she's not going anywhere.
Tea Leoni as the secretary of state in 'Madam Secretary.'
Tassler isn't the first woman to run a network (Nancy Tellem held the CBS job before her, Jamie Tarses was head of ABC in the '90s, and Gail Berman ran Fox in the 2000s). But Tassler — who traces her feminism back to her mother, a Puerto Rican emigre active in the civil rights movement while Tassler was growing up in New York City — may be the first to make empowering other women a part of her mandate. "There are certain people in our business who want to maintain the status quo," she says. "But creating opportunities for women has been a big part of my philosophy for decades."
Even before taking the top job at CBS, Tassler had been pushing to empower women execs and talent. In 2003, when she was head of drama for the network, overseeing CSI and CSI: Miami — a franchise she developed — she ushered in the series' first batch of female showrunners (Carol Mendelsohn and Ann Donahue, who each got five-year deals paying $20 million, making them, at the time, the highest-paid showrunners on television). When a third spinoff, CSI: NY, launched in 2004, she tapped Pam Veasey as showrunner; Veasey remained until the end of the show's run in 2013 and now runs the newest spinoff, CSI: Cyber.
Shortly after being named CBS Entertainment chief in 2004, Tassler began a "diversity conversation" at CBS, holding workshops with the Geena Davis Institute on Gender in Media (Tassler and Davis were roommates at Boston University). "She's always championed diversity," says Moonves, who has a history of putting women in key roles (including Dawn Ostroff, former entertainment president of The CW). "And it's been important for [CBS] to keep the door open for the best possible people."
From day one of her current job, Tassler pushed for more female-driven shows, such as Mike & Molly (puncturing the network's guy-comedy monopoly and launching Melissa McCarthy's career) and The Good Wife (an overtly feminist drama starring Julianna Margulies as a not-so-traditional politician's spouse turned lawyer). She greenlighted the Sherlock Holmes update Elementary (with Lucy Liu as Watson), Mom (a Chuck Lorre comedy with first-time showrunner Gemma Baker that earned star Allison Janney a 2014 Emmy for supporting actress), Extant (a Halle Berry sci-fi drama with female showrunner Liz Kruger) and Madam Secretary (with Tea Leoni sporting the pantsuit).
Lucy Liu stars as a female Watson in 'Elementary.'
Of course, simply hiring lots of female actors and showrunners doesn't make a lineup more attractive to women. Even with Erica Messer running Criminal Minds, the show is still drawing criticism for excessive violence. And although CBS has added a bunch of new female-driven shows and has a high female viewership — 57 percent, second only to ABC's 65 percent — it has the fewest female characters in primetime, according to a recent study by San Diego State University.
But Tassler at least has been trying to move the needle. She hasn't just given females more airtime — she's been launching shows that give female characters more complex and relatable personalities. "[She] doesn't have an addiction, an obsession or a dependency," says Leoni of what appealed to her about the Madam Secretary role. Anna Faris says she was reading for "prostitute No. 3" in an indie movie when she got offered the part of a single parent reconnecting with her estranged mother on Mom. "The idea that [my character's] struggles are so much more complicated than a love-interest struggle — I loved that!" she says. According to Margulies, the set of The Good Wife, an almost all-female-run operation, practically is Paradise Island. "The producers on set every day are me, Brooke Kennedy and Kristin Bernstein," she says. "There's no ego. We're not measuring the size of our penises."
That said, there are gender differences, even at the top of the network food chain. "You have to constantly not take [things] personally," says Margulies. "Women are more emotional than men, but you can't cry when something goes wrong — at least not in front of anyone."
That's a lesson Tassler admits to occasionally ignoring. "I get a little emotional sometimes," she says, recalling the day last September when Berlanti and Adler pitched her the pilot for Supergirl. "What I loved so much was the end of the pitch, when Supergirl takes this crystal that was her mother's [recorded] message. It was put in her pod when she was sent from Krypton. And Supergirl plays it at the time when she's most vulnerable, and it says how much her mother loves her and to embrace who you are. It was so beautiful. It struck a chord. I cried."