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When CBS Entertainment chairman Nina Tassler asked her boss of 25 years to lunch in mid-July, Leslie Moonves knew something significant was in store.
“We never have ‘official’ lunches,” he says. Over a misty-eyed meal in a dining room near Moonves’ office on the Radford lot, Tassler told him, “I think I want to go. I’m writing this book [What I Told My Daughter, Lessons from Leaders on Raising the Next Generation of Empowered Women], I have a couple of plays I want to do, I have a couple of movie projects, and my daughter is starting high school and I don’t want her to leave the house before I have more time.”
Moving on was something Tassler says she’d been giving a fair amount of thought to ever since she lost a dear friend to cancer a couple of years ago. “I began to think about life and become more introspective,” she says of the trying period, for which she’s spoken about publicly before. She and Moonves, close friends inside and out of the office, had had iterations of that conversation, too. “I’ve been working on the book for a couple years, I’ve been working on play for about 10 years, I’ve optioned some scripts, and I do a lot of philanthropic work that’s very important to me, and I figured while I have the breath in my lungs and the energy and the enthusiasm….”
Over lunch on that day, and in many that followed, she and Moonves hammered out a timeline that would have her step down as the longest running network chief at the end of the year. It was Tassler, who got her start in the theater and still marvels that she stayed in an executive role as long as she did, who suggested CBS’ well-liked current chief Glenn Geller was “the guy” to take her place. Moonves, who says he’s been impressed by Geller’s analysis and his taste in recent years, wholeheartedly agreed.
Not long after, the trio met in a CBS conference room and Tassler and Moonves shared the news. “I was stunned and shocked and filled with pride that I was being given the shot,” says Geller, “but the first thing I said was, ‘You’re leaving?!’ I just couldn’t imagine CBS without Nina.” He will assume the role of entertainment president immediately, and will work closely with Tassler through the transition. She’s expected to stay involved as an adviser through at least 2017 as well.
That Moonves decided to promote from within says as much about CBS’ corporate culture — Tassler is an 18-year company veteran; Geller, a 14-year one — as it does the challenges of the broadcast environment. Which is to say the top network job is no longer the most desirable, with headaches including free-falling ratings, content restrictions and an increasingly fractured landscape that features some 400 original shows. It’s a reality that even Moonves, the broadcast business’ biggest cheerleader, can’t deny. “Obviously there’s a lot more competition, and that makes it tougher to get great writing staffs together and five or six great actors in the same show,” he says, before insisting that Geller’s primary focus will be no different than Moonves‘ was when he had the job more than a decade earlier: “The play is still the thing. No matter where you get your content — online, DVR, skinny bundles, etc. — it’s still about the shows.”
The announcement, which was strategically made after Stephen Colbert’s Late Show debut and before the new season begins, caught many in the industry off-guard. After all, Tassler had inked a new four-year contract just last year, her network has rounded out 12 of the past 13 years as the most watched and her fall lineup features at least a couple of promising shows, including Limitless and Supergirl. The latter is one that Tassler is particularly proud of, and on more than one occasion she has touted the personal significance of the series’ female empowerment storyline. It’s a theme she’ll also tackle in her What I Told My Daughter collection of essays, which is being published by CBS-owned Simon and Schuster next spring.
That her decision to move on leaves one fewer female voice in Hollywood’s executive suite is admittedly unfortunate, though she and her boss suggest they made the right choice for CBS in promoting Geller. “I’ve surrounded myself throughout my career with a lot of very strong, extraordinary female executives — Nina, Nancy Tellem, Jo Ann Ross, Carolyn Reidy, Terry Press — but our culture is about promoting internally, if possible, and [Glenn] was an obvious choice,” explains Moonves, with Tassler adding: “And I’m going to continue to look for more opportunities for women in front of and behind the camera.”
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