Eye in 'early' talks with Ashton Kutcher for next season

CBS definitely wants to stay in the “Two and a Half Men” business next season.

CBS Entertainment prexy Nina Tassler said Wednesday that the network is in “early conversations” with Ashton Kutcher to return to the show, which has defied the odds and managed a successful relaunch following the blowup with star Charlie Sheen last spring.

Tassler wouldn’t go into much detail, but she told scribes during CBS’ portion of the Television Critics Assn. press tour in Pasadena that “everybody likes what they’re doing” on the relaunched “Men.” Tassler’s comment came after her formal Q&A sesh in which she talked up CBS’ strong start to the season with several strong frosh entries and a deep bench of returning hits. “We’ve had an amazing year,” Tassler said.

Given the resilience of “Men,” it’s no surprise that CBS and sitcom producer Warner Bros. TV are starting to have talks about renewing the laffer for a tenth season. Kutcher signed a one-season pact when he was recruited to succeed Sheen last year, which means the thesp now brings considerable leverage to the table. In addition, CBS and WBTV have to work out a new contract for the series. That means sorting out new syndication deals for the show with local TV stations, because the initial round of “Men” off-net deals were capped at nine seasons. (The show’s cable syndie deal with FX, however, covers 10 seasons.)

Kutcher was a little coy about his long-term plans when pressed about the issue of his returning to the show next season. On one hand, he said he viewed the summer months as a “hiatus” period where he may try to shoot a movie. On the other, he noted that the deal he struck last year was a “kind of a test deal” and that he’d be “interested in coming back if we can work that out.”

“Men” co-creator Chuck Lorre deferred all deal-related questions to CBS. But on the creative merits, he feels the show has plenty of life left in it. “Based on what’s going on now in the writers’ room — absolutely,” he said.

In her on stage remarks, Tassler was quick to credit Lorre and the net’s other showrunners for being “the heart of our success.” She made special mention of Michael Patrick King, steward of the season’s top comedy “2 Broke Girls” (“He’s just a gem”), and J.J. Abrams and Jonah Nolan, exec producers of frosh drama “Person of Interest” (“We just hit the lottery”).

With CBS ranking No. 1 in adults 18-49 for the season to date, up 7% over the same frame last season, there wasn’t much for the scribes to grill Tassler on. Although being No. 1 does have its own high-class problems.

“One of the most daunting challenges that we’re facing this year is staying in that dominant position,” she said. “In some ways I think it’s almost more challenging holding onto that dominant position versus working your way up from the top.”

Although Tassler opened her sesh by noting that her TCA seshes make her a “nervous wreck” — she hadn’t planned to have a formal Q&A this time around until pressure from the scribes made CBS sked one at the last minute — she deftly parried the tougher questions with humor.

Pressed on the high-volume of anatomical and ethnic jokes in “2 Broke Girls,” Tassler didn’t blink. ” ‘Vagina’ is not indecent,” she said, joking that she’s told King to use the word even more.

On the generally negative critical response to the midseason Rob Schneider comedy “Rob,” she deadpanned: “Well, it’s not ‘Downton Abbey.’ ”

The move this season of “The Good Wife” to Sunday 9 p.m. slot has meant a lot of odd start times in the face of inevitable football overruns, but Tassler still thinks the slot is a good fit with the show’s aud, which she called “very female and very upscale.”

And she was gracious when asked her opinion of NBC’s chances of succeeding with its ambitious musical-drama “Smash,” which will compete with CBS’ powerhouse Monday lineup starting Feb. 6.

“In my heart I love musical theater. I love musicals. I’m a big ‘Glee’ watcher. I hope (‘Smash’) does well for them,” she said. “I think it’s important that in all of our respective (network programming) jobs that we continue to explore (and) try to do new things.”

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