HOLLYWOOD — All work and no play has helped make Jack Sussman a very popular man around CBS.
The Eye net is still basking in the glow of its November sweeps victory, a ratings success fueled by big-ticket specials featuring the likes of Michael Jackson, Carol Burnett, Garth Brooks and Lucille Ball, as well as kudocasts such as the Emmys and the Country Music Awards. As senior VP of specials for CBS, Sussman is responsible for putting those events together and making sure they work for Eye viewers.
“He’s our unsung hero (for November),” says CBS topper Leslie Moonves. “He’s been unbelievably busy, yet he’s done a phenomenal job.”
While non-series programming has always been a part of network sweep skeds, under Moonves and Sussman, CBS has claimed the “event” special as its own. Call it the very special special.
“Specials today have become events because it’s the best way they can succeed,” the 44-year-old Sussman says. “It used to be only a movie or miniseries could be labeled an ‘event,’ but that’s not the case anymore.”
Soon after arriving at CBS from VH1 in 1997, Sussman– a former producer of hard news at CNN who is equally comfortable grabbing yellowtail at Sushi Roku as he is at scarfing down a bowl of matzoh ball soup at Barney Greengrass — made a splash mining his recording industry connections to resurrect music-themed specials for broadcast TV.
Sussman, a U of North Carolina grad whose office walls feature photos of him posing with the Rolling Stones, Sheryl Crow and other music bigshots, sees his role as luring the right talent to the Eye and then making sure the finished product fits the net’s audience needs.
“Some producers like our involvement, and others would prefer that we were absentee buyers,” Sussman says. “But we’re not. We need to protect our brand.”
That’s one reason Sussman feels compelled to travel to the site of almost every CBS special.
Not surprisingly, he was on a jet Sept. 11. Following Jackson’s final Madison Square Garden concert, he was headed back to Los Angeles to supervise the Latin Grammys and Emmy telecasts. His plane was diverted to Kansas City, forcing Sussman and some friends to drive 29½ hours back home.
Within a few weeks, he was back in the air, headed everywhere from New York to Nashville to work on all of the events that would help give CBS its sweeps win.
“Until now, I really haven’t had a moment to breathe,” he says. “You know you’re traveling too much when the flight attendant says, ‘Hello, Mr. Sussman’ before you hand her your boarding pass.”