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CBS kicks off ‘The Talk’ at TCA

Hit shows joined by newcomers at Television panel

Nina Tassler admits there’s an elephant in the room when it comes to CBS’ new daytime talker.

Yes, Julie Chen is a panelist on “The Talk” — as the show, exec produced by actress Sara Gilbert, has now been dubbed. And yes, Chen happens to be the wife of CBS CEO Leslie Moonves.

But put all that aside, the CBS Entertainment prexy told reporters Wednesday. Chen is the right host for the job, Tassler asserted during the exec sesh that kicked off CBS’ portion of the Television Critics Assn. summer press tour at the BevHilton.

“Why should she be penalized for being married to him?” Tassler asked the reporters who hammered the Chen question.

Chen actually has more hosting experience than most of “The Talk’s” panelists — which, besides Chen and Gilbert, includes Sharon Osbourne, Leah Remini, Holly Robinson Peete and Marissa Jaret Winokur. The hourlong daytime strip was greenlit last week as the fall replacement for soon-to-end longtime sudser “As the World Turns” (Daily Variety, July 22).

Chen is also a new parent — which is part of “The Talk’s” pitch as a more mommy-centric version of ABC’s long-running “The View.” Chen said she’s not bothered by the whispers about her three gigs at CBS (“The Early Show,” “Big Brother” and now “The Talk”).

“I actually had to sleep with Nina, I think they did too,” quipped Chen, pointing to her co-hosts. But more seriously, she added, “If I wasn’t me, I’d be saying the same thing. It’s a fair thought to have.”

Chen said she hopes critics of her hire will tune into the show and understand her involvement. The anchor and host said she’s used to the rumblings, which she’s heard ever since marrying Moonves. “Everything that can be said already has,” she said. “It can’t get any worse.”

Tassler said Chen’s involvement was actually first brought up by Gilbert, who pitched the show to CBS last August.

“We talked about people with profile, and Julie has a terrific reputation,” Tassler said. “The bottom line is the executive producer of the show, Sara Gilbert, said, ‘What about Julie, would she be interested?’ ”

Tassler said CBS followed Gilbert’s lead in approaching Chen — who also hosts “Big Brother” and co-anchors “The Early Show” for the Eye. As part of the pickup, Chen will now serve as a contributor to “Early Show” but drop her day-to-day duties on the morning show.

“The truth is … I made the decision,” Tassler said. “But I don’t think Leslie is unhappy with the decision.”

“The Talk” has gone through several iterations in its year-long development. Gilbert, whom Tassler repped as an agent 25 years ago, was inspired to pitch the show after holding a “Mommy and Me”-style gathering in her living room. The Eye offered to pay for a low-budget $25,000 Internet presentation, and then it picked up momentum from there.

Once CBS decided to cancel “As the World Turns,” the Eye opted to pilot “The Talk,” along with a game/talk hybrid hosted by celeb chef Emeril Lagasse; a new take on gamer “Pyramid,” fronted by Andy Richter; and a yakker hosted by Valerie Bertinelli and Australian host Rove McManus.

With such competition, one critic noted that Gilbert may have employed some savvy strategy in “hiring the CEO’s wife” as a panelist.

But “The Talk” ultimately tested high both inside and outside CBS and “screened great,” Tassler said.

Asked how “The Talk” is differentiated from “The View,” Tassler pointed to the hosts’ points of view, as infused through their experiences as parents. “The hosts will talk with you, not at you,” said Tassler, referring to the loud cross-talk that often takes place on “The View.”

Show won’t shy away political topics, she added. Osbourne and Robinson Peete will lend conservative voices to the panel, though Osbourne and Robinson Peete shied away from those labels, however.

Chen acknowledged that, as a journo, she may have to walk a fine line in discussing political subjects. She also may have to watch what she says about Moonves, she admitted. “I’m probably going to have to have a chat at home with Leslie,” she admitted, adding that things he says around the house that might affect the CBS Corp. will be off limits.

Among other topics, Tassler and the cast of “The Big Bang Theory” declined to discuss the thesps’ ongoing salary renegotiations with Warner Bros. TV. “We’re feeling good that things will work out,” Tassler said. “You saw how ‘Two and a Half Men’ worked out.”

As for “Men,” Tassler said she’s been promised by Warner Bros. TV that star Charlie Sheen’s ongoing legal problems will not have any affect on production or delivery of the hit comedy.

Asked about GLAAD’s recent report on gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender portrayals on TV — which gave CBS low marks — Tassler admitted the Eye could do better.

“We’re very disappointed in our track record so far,” said Tassler, who said several LGBT characters will be added to CBS shows. “We know we can do better. We’re not happy with ourselves.”

Coincidentally, Gilbert — who avoided mentioning her partner in CBS’ press release about “Talk” — said she plans to reveal more of her personal life as a lesbian mother once the show gets going. “I’ve been acting my whole life and never discussed my personal life,” she said. “But this is a talk show, and I’ll be discussing my life more.”

Meanwhile, Tassler was also asked to comment on Disney’s decision Tuesday to ax ABC Entertainment Group prexy Steve McPherson. “Dammit, he got out of doing press tour,” Tassler quipped. Referring to McPherson’s work as a winery owner, she added: “I’d like a case of chardonnay over the holidays.”

Separately, CBS announced the next batch of exec participants in the second season of reality hit “Undercover Boss”: NASCAR senior VP and CMO Steve Phelps; DirecTV chairman- CEO Mike White; Chiquita Brands chairman-CEO Fernando Aguirre; and Great Wolf Resorts CEO Kimberly Schaefer.

Also, CBS said the next edition of “Survivor” will divide tribes by ages – pitting young vs. old contestants.

Tassler said that while CBS was coming off another “terrific year,” the network team remains “restless and motivated and, as I like to say, paranoid.”

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