CBS' Nina Tassler Defends Pilot Season: It 'Works for Us'

TCA 2012 - CBS Nina Tassler
Francis Specker/CBS

CBS Entertainment chief Nina Tassler isn’t ready to abandon pilot season.

Forty-eight hours after Fox entertainment chairman Kevin Reilly rocked the TV community with the announcement that his network would not be partaking in the age-old pilot season tradition, Tassler suggested her network wouldn’t be following suit.

“Pilot season isn’t perfect, and it certainly is a very difficult time,” she told a room full of reporters gathered for the Television Critics Association’s semi-annual Press tour Wednesday, before noting: “But pilot season does work for us.”

STORY: Fox's Kevin Reilly Reveals Plans to 'Bypass' Pilot Season

As for showrunner Damon Lindelof's recent comments comparing broadcast pilot season to a conveyor belt model that impedes on quality: "I want to hear Damon Lindelof complain about broadcast when he goes to the bank to cash his Lost checks," Tassler quipped, adding: "The bottom line is... yes, it's harder, yes, it's challenging, but when you have a great writer and great storytelling and they have to make decisions in a pressurized situation, they're going to make the right and best decisions, period."

She pointed to a recent Forbes article, which addressed the kind of creative adrenaline that can come out of a compressed –and thus high-pressure-- period like pilot season. “It’s frustrating but also it’s exciting,” she said of the spring-time arms race for talent, pointing to two key examples of juggernauts, CSI and The Big Bang Theory, born out of that pressure cooker environment. The former was an 11th hour order, which forced a team and script to come together and deliver a hit show, while the latter required a reshoot that added star Kaley Cuoco.

"I think you can’t make these broad generalizations,” she concluded, noting that Reilly likely was making a decision that made sense for his needs and the needs of his company. Which isn’t to say Tassler isn’t focused on innovative financial models (see Under the Dome) or year-round programming (Battle Creek).

During her half-hour before the press, Tassler also addressed topics ranging from killing off characters to the future of series including Hostages, Big Bang and Two and a Half Men. Here are the highlights:

Buh-Bye Characters

As Tassler sees it, it is a sign of the evolving boundaries of broadcast storytelling that two CBS dramas killed off major characters last season. Still, she admitted that when Person of Interest showrunner Jonah Nolan told her he was going to kill off Taraji P. Henson's Det. Carter, "I wanted to kill myself." She continued: "Years ago you would never ever kill a major character. The rule was if it ain't broken, don't fix it." The Mentalist also wrapped up the central Red John mystery when it was revealed that Sherriff Tom McAllister (Xander Berkeley) was the serial killer who had been tormenting Simon Baker's Patrick Jane. Tassler said both Nolan and Mentalist showrunner Bruno Heller first revealed their intentional character-killing plot twists to her last summer, adding: "I think that's a reflection of how much we've changed, how much the business changes and really supporting the producers and getting behind the creative changes that they want to make albeit sometimes very dramatic." 

A Future for Hostages?

Despite a particularly rough freshman run in the ratings, Tassler suggests she's not sure yet whether she's ready to close the door on Hostages. "We're always open," she told a smaller group post-panel of continuing with a show that's somewhat off-brand for CBS in that it isn't close-ended, adding: "The reason why the show didn't work is not because of the serialized form." Minutes earlier, she tipped her hat to Hostage's rivals, NBC's The Blacklist and ABC's Castle, noting just how competitive Monday's 10 p.m. time period had become.

Whatever Leslie Wants...

Tassler knows where her bread is buttered. Asked if she thought her boss, CBS Corp. CEO Leslie Moonves, would succeed in getting buyers to pay for eyeballs 30 days after a show first premieres on linear TV, Tassler invoked the iconic song of seduction from a Broadway classic. "There's a song in Damn Yankees that says whatever Lola wants Lola gets," Tassler wound up. "So whatever Leslie wants Leslie gets." In recent years, Moonves has engaged in boastful predictions about persuading advertisers to pay for more and more delayed viewing. He's been among the most forceful voices for a new currency that counts seven days of delayed viewing, up from the current three -- and last November, he revealed a desire to get buyers to pony up for "live plus 30." Tassler added: "I don't know specifically the advertisers response." 

About That Big Brother Flap

Though Big Brother 15 has long wrapped, Tassler was pressed about the objectionable behavior of last summer's contestants: "I was mortified by the comments that [contestant] Aaryn [Gries] made," said Tassler, adding that the "confluence" of racially themed news events including the Trayvon Martin case and Paula Deen's n-word admission fueled the headlines. (Lest anyone forget, multiple Big Brother contestants used racist, sexist and homophobic slurs, prompting CBS for the first time in the show's history to run a disclaimer before the show aired.) Still, Tassler defended the producer's actions and the casting of the show. "It is a social experiment. You are taking people from very disparate walks of life and confining them in a house," she said, noting that the network does the requisite background checks on the contestants. "You always try to look for a disparate group, where you will get story, where you will have conflict It's not a science. You go into every season hoping you're going to make the right choices," she said. "At the end of the day we felt the producers handled it responsibly."

Big Bang, Men and More

Tassler told a gaggle of reporters that she was "very proud" to have four Lorre series (Big Bang, Men, Mike & Molly, Mom) on the air, and was hopeful that that could continue. Pressed specifically on long-running Men's future, she said: "We'll see in May. Hopefully we'll have an opportunity to decide that." As for the ratings hit her network took with its Monday night comedies this fall, she added: "We still have eight out of the top 10 comedies on television. It was a harder go of it this year but the changes we made once we recognized we had some challenges -- moving Two Broke Girls to 8:30 p.m. -- helped solve that problem. 

Events, Events, Events

The failure of Hostages, the Monday night event series entry that earned low ratings, has not sapped CBS' appetite for limited-run event programming. "There's always a knee-jerk reaction in our business to analyze and determine why something didn't work. It's very hard to deduce an absolute answer," said Tassler. But she dismissed the notion that viewers would not come to CBS for the kind of out-of-box storytelling that some of her broadcast competitors are putting more resources behind. "Creative drives our business, the business doesn't drive the creative," she said, adding that the network fielded a break-out hit with "extraordinary appeal" in last summer's Under the Dome, which returns for a second season June 30. And Extant, like Dome another co-production with Steven Spielberg's Amblin Entertainment, will bow this summer as well. The network also has ordered the four-part miniseries The Dovekeepers from Mark Burnett, whom Tassler called "today's PT Barnum," and his wife Roma Downey, targeting the entry for a 2015 premiere. Added Tassler: "We're looking for a bigger headline with out event programming."

Power of VOD

Without providing specific numbers from the Pasadena stage, Tassler touted the power of video-on-demand, which has grown considerably as a viewing alternative this season. Same goes for live-plus-three, she noted, which looks much the way live-plus-seven viewership did at this time last year. She pointed to her network’s prestige drama The Good Wife, which has grown double digits on air (up 13 percent in total viewers), online (also up 13 percent) and on VOD (up 19 percent) this season. What’s more, earlier seasons of the Julianna Margulies drama was the most-watched TV on Amazon Prime Instant Video in the fourth quarter. As for Good Wife's shelf-life? "I hope [it runs] forever," joked Tassler.

Forget About Fallon

NBC’s Tonight Show with Jimmy Fallon may be the new kid on the 11:30 p.m. programming, but that doesn’t mean David Letterman’s long-running CBS show won’t be showered with promotional love. Asked about how the network planned to counteract the marketing blitz for Fallon’s mid-February premiere week, Tassler revealed only that her team did have long-gestating plans for big guests and big marketing. “There are a lot of surprises in store,” she teased.

More to come...