Tassler addresses 'Idol' juggernaut, demo strength


PASADENA -- CBS Entertainment president Nina Tassler wasn't taking any chances Thursday during CBS' portion of the Television Critics Assn. winter press tour.

Having previously been through an inquisition by this bunch, Tassler decided to bring along a couple of high-profile friends: Nancy Tellem, president of the CBS Paramount Network TV Entertainment Group, and Kelly Kahl, senior executive vp programming operations at CBS.

Tassler had legitimate stuff to brag about: Namely, that CBS had just moved into first place for the season in adults 18-49 -- a Valhalla achievement for any network. But it was just Tassler's luck to run straight into a buzz saw of a different sort: the premiere this week of "American Idol" on Fox with its peerless dominance and propensity for laying waste to anything that dare test its mind-numbing ratings.

Suddenly, the session was transformed into an allegory of good vs. evil, the primetime landscape now analogous to an interplanetary face-off of "Star Wars" proportions. "About the Death Star," began one critic, referring to "Idol," "other than sending in a plucky band of rebels, what do you do?"

"Well," Tassler replied gamely, "we can talk first of all about the Tuesday night performance of 'NCIS' for us. And even though the lights were off everywhere else, we like to say we had our deflector shield up."

"Our shows hang in there OK, while the other guys get ... vaporized," Kahl said, touching on an issue that has research executives at other networks scratching their heads and scouring Nielsen numbers for explanations.

Just as Tassler seemed to be on solid footing with this potshot gallery, the scribe tribe moved on to another familiar refrain from CBS' executive TCA sessions in recent years: the fact that CBS remains the most successful proponent of closed-ended procedural dramas like the "CSI" franchise at a time when its fellow networks seem to be moving increasingly to serialized hours with decidedly mixed success.

"Earlier this year, we were talking about kind of throwing out the rule book and really trying new kinds of shows," Tassler said. "Barbara Hall will be doing a show for us about demons and exorcism. We're also doing (a remake of British drama) 'Viva Blackpool.' We're doing a musical."

And what about this sudden surge in the 18-49 crowd? Was CBS in danger of abandoning its big-tent, broadcast-something-for-everyone philosophy? "We are still interested, obviously, in all demos," Tassler said.

Yes, even the Justin Timberlake demo, as it turns out. After CBS' problems three years ago with a certain Super Bowl halftime show and Timberlake's participation in the famed "wardrobe malfunction" with Janet Jackson, the network is now featuring Timberlake on next month's Grammy telecast and on a Victoria's Secret special. One critic inquired as to the message that might send.

"Certainly (Timberlake is) prominent in the Grammys," Tellem allowed. "Obviously, as we're looking ahead to the Grammys, we also have to look at his popularity as well."

The other issue that seemed to strike a chord with critics Thursday was the decision to air an episode of "Criminal Minds" following the Super Bowl telecast. The TCA troopers seemed to have their hearts set on the Monday comedy "How I Met Your Mother" to enjoy the windfall of the year's biggest audience lead-in.

Kahl: " 'Criminal Minds' is, I think, the fastest-growing drama on TV this year from season to season. We're trying to kick it up a notch. ... There's a whole audience out there that we're hoping to expose it to. ... I don't know that 'Grey's Anatomy' was a great fit (as the post-Super Bowl show last year for ABC), a female-skewing soap coming out of the Super Bowl. But it really worked for them. I think the point is, you've got a huge audience sitting there, and if you have the chance to introduce them to a new show, you take it."