CBS TV CEO Leslie Moonves has named his longtime business affairs chief, Nancy Tellem, to succeed him as president of CBS Entertainment, a post in charge of all primetime, daytime, latenight and Saturday morning programming.
The move makes Tellem just the second woman to hold that title at a Big 3 network entertainment division (the first being ABC’s Jamie Tarses) and one of the highest-ranking women in the TV business as a whole.
Tellem worked most recently as executive vice president of business affairs at CBS Entertainment and executive VP of CBS Prods., the network’s inhouse production arm, which became the No. 3 network TV supplier after placing six of seven new series on the Eye web’s fall schedule.
Before joining CBS in July 1997, Tellem was executive vice president of business and financial affairs at Warner Bros. TV, where she worked for Moonves when he was head of the studio.
Like Tarses, who works alongside ABC Entertainment chairman Stu Bloomberg, Tellem will work in tandem with Moonves and isn’t expected to have the final word on the creative decisions at CBS. Moonves’ first passion is for programming, and he will remain very involved in running the entertainment division.
“We’ve worked together for years,” Tellem told Daily Variety. “I know him very well, and he knows me quite well. We work as a really good team and complement each other.”
Moonves decided to name a new entertainment president after his April promotion to the TV CEO post overseeing all sports, news, sales, marketing and affiliate relations, in addition to the entertainment division, CBS Prods. and the Eyemark Entertainment distribution arm.
Given Moonves’ added duties and the recent departure of his No. 2 person, executive VP Billy Campbell, it’s somewhat surprising that CBS isn’t bringing in new execs to help out. Instead, the network will rely even more heavily on the team already in place. In fact, eight other Eye web department heads also received promotions Monday.
“We’re lean and mean, but we don’t feel understaffed,” Moonves said.
The eight executives, all upped to senior vice president posts, are Gene Stein in comedy, Nina Tassler in drama development, Terry Botwick in current programming and specials, Mitch Semel in East Coast programming, Peter Golden in talent and casting, Sunta Izzicupo in movies for TV and miniseries, Chris Ender in communications and Kelly Kahl in program planning and scheduling.
Six of the execs will now report to Tellem, but Kahl will continue to report directly to Moonves, and Ender will report jointly to Moonves and Gil Schwartz, senior vice president of CBS Corp.
The decision to remove scheduling from the purview of entertainment president is an unusual step, but Moonves said it makes sense given the increasing presence of news and sports on the schedule.
Business affairs senior vice president Marc Graboff will still report to Tellem, and Moonves and Tellem will continue to oversee CBS Prods. for the time being, but the company may decide to bring in a top executive there at a later date.
There was some speculation that Moonves would pursue a studio heavy-hitter for the entertainment prexy job, and he did, in fact, have preliminary talks months ago with Sandy Grushow, president of 20th Century Fox TV, as well as David Janollari and Bob Greenblatt, who recently formed their own production company.
Few industry observers, however, believed Moonves would relinquish enough control of the entertainment division to attract and not clash with an outsider. Moonves also has a tendency to turn to longtime loyal colleagues to fill open jobs.
“Nancy Tellem is probably one of the best people I’ve ever worked with,” said UTA agent Martin Lesak. “She’s also been fiercely loyal to Les over the years.”
Votes of confidence
Nearly all of the top posts at CBS are occupied by former employees of Moonves at Warner Bros. TV. By promoting from within, Moonves knows he has someone he can work with, and he is issuing a vote of confidence in his current team.
“The most important thing it takes to be a network entertainment president is relationships,” said Sam Haskell, executive vice president and West Coast head of TV at the William Morris Agency. “What Nancy gained from being the right hand of Les is his relationships. This maintains consistency in the transference of power, and what it also says for the empowerment of women is important.”
The promotion to head of all network programming is a big leap for Tellem, whose background is in business affairs rather than development. It’s very rare, if not unprecedented, for an entertainment president to come up through business affairs, although Disney’s TV chairman, Lloyd Braun, has a similar background.
“I chose Nancy because she’s one of the best executives in town,” Moonves said. “She’s a terrific leader, and while her background is not creative, she has great relationships with creative people.”
Tellem adds that she’s worked closely with the creative executives both at CBS Prods. and at Warner Bros. “My job wasn’t simply the number-cruncher doing deals,” she said.
Most studio executives and agents around town agreed that Tellem was a strong choice for the job even without the development background.
“She’ll have no problem sliding into that job,” said Eric Tannenbaum, president of Columbia TriStar TV. “It is unusual (not to pick someone from the creative side), but they have a very strong team of creative people there, and she’s been involved with that side through CBS Prods. She also has very good talent relations, so it’s not a stretch at all.”
Tellem will certainly have large shoes to fill in terms of being the public face of the network at various events. Moonves, a former actor, is a master showman and has kept the public perception of CBS strong even as the network has struggled to find hits, turn a profit, attract younger viewers and extract value from its core audience of older women.
Those who know Tellem well describe her in glowing terms, though. One former colleague used words such as “sharp, down-to-earth, honest, incredibly personable and very real,” while another called her “fun, smart and level-headed.”
“Everyone goes to her with problems,” said one former co-worker from Warner Bros. “She’s really good at getting people motivated. Leslie rules sort of through fear. She doesn’t. She’s tough, but she stands up for you.”