CBS Studios' David Stapf Talks Pilot Season, Working With Les and Nina, His Worst-Reviewed Show Ever (Q&A)
On the heels of "NCIS'" 200th episode, the network chief opens up about his most frequent note, his basic-cable dreams and why he'll take ratings over awards any day.
This story first appeared in the Feb. 17 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine.
David Stapf dislikes interviews, and photo shoots don't exactly put him at ease. Can you blame him? The CBS TV Studios president spent the first 14 years of his career staying out of the press as a publicist, first at Embassy and then at Lorimar and Warner Bros. Television. In 1999, former Warner Bros. TV president Leslie Moonves brought the Calabasas, Calif., native with him to CBS, where he segued into a current-TV executive role. Five years later, Stapf, now 53, a onetime elementary school teacher at the Mirman school for gifted students in L.A., was named president of CBS TV Studios. He is responsible for 27 series including The Good Wife and two billion-dollar franchises, NCIS and CSI. On a late-January day, the married father of two opened up about reality's potential, painful reviews and what he'd be doing if he weren't making TV's most-watched shows.
THE HOLLYWOOD REPORTER: What is the most frequent note you give?
David Stapf: "What's it about?" "What are you trying to say here?" And most of the time the writer has the answer, but it's not coming through. It's funny, I do this with my daughter all the time as we're sitting there doing her homework and she's trying to construct a sentence to sound a certain way, and I say, "What are you trying to say? Just say it. Say it and then we'll figure out how to write it."
THR: Where is the biggest opportunity in today's landscape?
Stapf: We are making shows that are making money, and that's the goal, but I think there's an opportunity in the cable landscape, assuming the business model makes sense. I really want to crack into the Showtime world, but also I want to do smart shows that are going to make money and have an impact in the basic-cable landscape.
THR: A cable series can't hold a candle financially to CSI …
Stapf: No, and that's why [network shows are] hands down the most important thing we do. That said, working in cable offers our great roster of talent other opportunities to flex different creative muscles. You just have to be smart about what you do and where you do it.
THR: How does a show's international potential factor into the development process?
Stapf: International doesn't dictate what we develop, but I have a tremendously good dialogue with Armando Nunez, who runs our international division, about what's going to work for him. Ultimately, that's a very important part of the business model, particularly when you get into cable. When we first started thinking about Hawaii Five-0, it felt like something that would have international appeal, so I didn't have any hesitation about putting it into development.
THR: CBS Studios rarely sells to the other broadcast networks. Can you compete in that market?
Stapf: The priority is CBS, CW, Showtime and all of the basic-cable channels. That's our focus and our priority. Does that mean we forbid ourselves from going elsewhere? No, but it has to make good business and creative sense.
THR: Ratings or awards, what's more important?
Stapf: Ratings. I mean, it's a business. Awards are nice, and we're so proud of the accolades The Good Wife has gotten over the last couple of years, but yeah, I'll take ratings any day over awards.
STORY: Casting Pilot Season: Who's In, Who's Out and Who'd Never
THR: How about reviews? Those for The Good Wife are often glowing, but then you have a series like Rob.
Stapf: I was the publicist for Full House from day one, even before the pilot, and I've never read worse reviews than for that show. You're the guy handing them stack after stack after stack and it's just like, oh my God, what do I do? You feel like it's your fault. And that show ran for nine years, so it hurts. When you're working on a show, you become part of that family. It's somebody saying your baby's ugly. But at the end of the day, does it affect viewership? I don't know. Isn't the audience the ultimate critic?
THR: NCIS has become the No. 1 show. Is there a lesson to be gleaned from its success?
Stapf: I understand a network's lack of patience because, again, it's a business, but if you believe in a show and its auspices, and it's good enough to stay on the air, you should give it the benefit of the doubt. Doubles can turn into home runs; it's rare, but it has happened.
THR: Why do you think it happened in this case?
Stapf: My opinion is that there were really interesting characters created, but there was a dance that was done in the beginning: At what point is it OK to stand over a dead body and tell jokes? NCIS eventually found that rhythm where it was OK, but it took time to get there.
THR: In May, CSI: New York was on the bubble. How have you responded in the months since?
Stapf: We look at the economics and how can we make it palatable from a business standpoint to stay on the air. But even more important, we look at whether it's the show. We do these research studies where we ask: Is the show stronger or weaker than in the past? On CSI: Miami and New York, they were both stronger. But ultimately it's a network decision.
THR: You launched The Talk about a year and a half ago. What have you learned from the experience thus far?
Stapf: I learned a ton because I didn't know anything. This is a completely new area for us, but you learn from your audience. It is a very engaged audience, but at the same time it's an audience -- this is what research tells us -- that's also doing other things while they're watching the show. In other words, it's a big takeaway audience and in my opinion, [the show has] become a little more accessible and relatable.
THR: What other genres would you like to be in?
Stapf: As a studio, we would love to be in the reality world. There's no reason that some of the successes CBS network has had on the reality side can't be produced by our studio. That's a goal.
THR: What are the big trends of development season?
Stapf: I don't know that you ever know what is going to strike a chord, and if that's what you're shooting for, you're in trouble. That said, I think one of the things that you hear a lot of is: What's not on TV? Prior to Once Upon a Time, fairy tales were not on TV. Now, Westerns aren't on. It doesn't necessarily need to be an old-fashioned "guys on horseback" Western, but that thematic type of storytelling isn't necessarily on.
THR: You, along with folks like Nina Tassler and Kelly Kahl, followed Moonves from Warner Bros. to CBS and have remained loyal to him. Why?
Stapf: It sounds corny and ass-kissy, but he's the best there is. There's no job that any of us have that he can't do or do better, and I genuinely believe that. So there's tremendous respect from all of us. And for me personally, the guy basically said to me, "Come over and be the head of current [programming] at CBS." When my answer was, "I don't know how to do that," he said, "I trust you. You'll learn it." I'm incredibly appreciative of that kind of confidence, and for me it happened twice.
THR: You're close with CBS Entertainment president Tassler, too. How is that relationship tested during the season, particularly when she has to make tough calls on whether to pick up or cancel your shows?
Stapf: I view Nina not only as a dear, dear friend but also as my sister and my partner. That stuff is disappointing, but our relationship is strong enough to withstand any disappointment that I may have or she may have that we didn't deliver. It's part of the deal. I respect and understand that ultimately it's the network's prerogative to choose which shows go forward and which shows get canceled. I always feel like we're dealt with in a very fair way, and I usually understand her rationale.
THR: How did your time as a teacher inform what you do now?
Stapf: I didn't do it very long, but teaching taught me to listen to my audience, which at that time were kids. When I became a publicist, it became the producers, actors and journalists. And then when I got this job, it widened even more. The most intimidated I've ever been in my life, hands down, was the first day of school when there were 25 kids looking up at you saying, "We've got six hours, what have you got?"
THR: Does that feeling translate to premiering new shows?
Stapf: Nothing comes close to that feeling. But the responsibility of not screwing that up or of getting in the way of that is sort of analogous to mounting a show.
IF I COULD BE ANYTHING IN THE WORLD: I'd Be an Artist
"Not that I'm good enough. For a while, I collected old license plates. I'd bend them and make stuff out of them, but then I got bored with that. I like to draw and paint, but these days I just doodle. I love collecting, too. I try to go to the swap meet at the Rose Bowl on the second Sunday of every month as often as I can. Fifteen or 20 years ago, there was this woman who had a truck with all of these paintings, most of which were garbage, and I fell in love with this one turquoise painting on a piece of scrap wood. I bought it for like $100, and the lady said, 'This guy is going to be famous one day.' At the time, I thought, 'Whatever, lady.' Turned out the painting was by an artist named Purvis Young, who did end up becoming a big deal. What else have I gotten? This is going to sound insane, but I have the front end of a red 1957 Chevy Impala hanging on the wall in our backyard. For a while, our whole house was outfitted with stuff from there. I go to stumble into things that make me go, 'Oh my God.'"