Grace Under Fire
Nancy Tellem has a knack for nurturing new hits
By Allison Romano -- Broadcasting & Cable, 1/27/2008 7:00:00 PM
As CBS continues to ride a wave of success, one of the network's key architects says she is still learning how to keep her company on top. As president of CBS Paramount Network Television, Nancy Tellem oversees an entertainment network that includes CBS, its TV studio, the company's interest in the fledgling CW, new media and even a startup record label. With so many charges, Tellem says there's always a new challenge.
“We joke, 'Wasn't it easy when there were just three networks?'” she says. “Now we have network, cable, Internet, mobile, and we need to figure out all the new ways people are consuming content. We are constantly learning.”
Solving such a puzzle is just the type of massive undertaking Tellem relishes. After all, she was part of the team that, under CBS Chairman Leslie Moonves, transformed CBS from the ratings basement to powerhouse status in just a few seasons. Now, she is leading CBS into new businesses and solidifying the company's position in more traditional venues, including network TV and the studio.
Through a mix of business acumen, strong relationships and creative savvy, Tellem has climbed to the top, earning her recognition as a 2008 Brandon Tartikoff Legacy Award winner. “Nancy has a great right and left side of the brain,” says NATPE President and CEO Rick Feldman, referring to Tellem's business and creative accomplishments. “She has an independent way of looking at things and is not afraid to express her opinions.” And like Tartikoff, she has a passion for television and a way of spotting a hit.
From her earliest days, Tellem says she wanted to be a player in TV. “I had a burning desire to be part of the creative process,” she says. “I was always trying to figure out how I was going to break through.”
While many network and studio heads are former programmers, Tellem spent a decade climbing up through business affairs. She hammered out deals and budgets, and negotiated intricate talent contracts.
In 1998, Tellem crossed over to entertainment, becoming president of the CBS network, and tackled a new aspect of the industry. “I was trained to handle the business side, but the creative is extraordinarily fun and challenging,” she says. “I love being part of the entire process, from casting, to getting to know writers and reading material.”
While Tellem still considers herself a student of creative, her credits read like those of a seasoned veteran. At CBS, Tellem was part of the team that turned the aging network around, with shows like CSI and Survivor, and classic sitcoms like Everybody Loves Raymond and King of Queens. The CBS studio, added to her watch in 2004, ranks as the top supplier for primetime shows this TV season.
Growing up in Northern California, Tellem was obsessed with television, but opted for a career in law. She practiced in Los Angeles for six years, all the while plotting ways to break into TV. It took a while, but she finally landed a consulting job on a legal reality show, Lie Detector, syndicated by Columbia and hosted by famed legal mind F. Lee Bailey.
She moved on to Merv Griffin Productions as an assistant general counsel. She edged closer to programming at Lorimar Television, where as director of business affairs, Tellem worked on ABC Friday night comedies like Full House and Family Matters. That was also where she first met Moonves, whom she would continue to work with throughout her career.
Former colleagues say they were impressed early on by Tellem's professional and personal drive. As she was climbing the ranks, she and husband Arn Tellem, a sports agent, were raising three sons. “Without a doubt, those boys are her biggest success,” says Warner Bros. Television Group President Bruce Rosenblum, who started with Tellem at Lorimar in 1986 and has worked with her for two decades.
“Professionally, she performs with a style and grace that makes those who work for her as well as third parties feel comfortable coming to her with a problem because they know she'll find an appropriate solution,” he adds.
Whenever she could, Tellem worked closely with producers and creative executives. While she lacked formal creative training, “I could offer the Jane Doe perspective,” she says. “I watched more TV than anyone, and I had a gut for things, like if an actor will work in a role, or strengths and weaknesses in a storyline.”
When Lorimar merged with Warner Bros. Television in 1989, Tellem capitalized on opportunities to contribute further. She rose to executive VP of business and financial affairs, making her the studio's No. 2 exec to Moonves. She pulled together key deals that drove the studio's success, from comedies like Friends and Murphy Brown to smash medical drama ER.
Even in the most stressful negotiations, Tellem was known for being poised. “We had a gazillion series going on, and that puts tremendous pressure on the head of business development,” says Nina Tassler, the current president of CBS Entertainment and former head of drama development for Warner Bros.
As quickly as the development teams could turn out series, she says, Tellem would get deals done. “She was incredibly invested in everything, but still managed it in a very strategic and ordered way,” Tassler says. “Nancy was grace under fire.”
Tellem counts ER as one of her most memorable deals. At the time, most studios had pulled back from dramas. “People declared drama was dead, and then we read the script for ER,” she says. “You'd never seen anything like it. The pace was fast, the cast was amazing. That year, the lights went back on for drama.”
That taught her an important lesson: “Hits are always around the corner.” At CBS, she says, the network found similar magic with CSI, Raymond and Survivor. All were “key to turning the network around,” she says. “I believe you have to believe in a show, and let it grow and be exposed.”
Tellem's loyalty to shows is reflected in her relationships with colleagues. Tellem and Tassler are among a tight-knit circle of execs who have been with Moonves for years. “She is incredibly supportive and always there to help if you stumble,” says Tassler.
Outside of CBS, Tellem is also held in high regard. Says Sony Pictures Television President Steve Mosko, “She understand that solutions have to work for everyone involved. She is a great facilitator who's able to get everyone together.”
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