The recent run of success at CBS has come as the result of a strong balance of hit shows, smart scheduling and bold new-media plays. One of the chief architects of that success, CBS Paramount Network Television Entertainment Group President Nancy Tellem, knows a little about balance.
In her role, Tellem oversees the entire operations of both CBS Entertainment and CBS Paramount Network Television, including development, programming, production, legal, business affairs, CBS’ interests in the new CW network, and the company’s forays into the new-media world.
And her ability to juggle all of that while still raising three kids with her husband, sports agent Arn Tellem, stuns those who know her.
“She’s incredible,” says Sony Pictures Television President Steve Mosko, who has known Tellem for well over a decade. “The way she balances all that work with a family load but always puts family first is really something.”
Growing up in Northern California and then attending law school at Hastings College of Law in San Francisco, Tellem first eyed a political career but then became consumed by the entertainment bug. She remembers as a child the excitement of anticipating the new fall season; she even used to have the networks mail her their new schedules.
She launched an entertainment- law journal in school and considered a career as a legal correspondent on television. She moved to Los Angeles after school and worked in litigation at a law firm but constantly probed for ways to break into the business.
“I couldn’t act, and I wasn’t a very good writer, but I was always fascinated with television,” she remembers. “It was killing me that I was living in L.A. but couldn’t break in.”
She finally got her break in 1982 when Columbia Television hired her to help famed attorney F. Lee Bailey shape questions for Lie Detector, a syndicated reality show that ran long before the “reality show” phrase was coined. She stayed for three years and became involved in Merv Griffin’s syndicated shows, but she began to realize her aspirations were growing outside of legal work.
She moved to Lorimar in 1987 in a business-affairs post, starting at the same time as Bruce Rosenblum, now president of Warner Bros. Television Group, a partner in The CW.
“Nancy is a truly special person who seamlessly blends her rich family life with her countless professional responsibilities,” says Rosenblum. “She is an ideal role model for young executives entering our business.”
It was at Lorimar that she met CBS Corp. chief Leslie Moonves, head of TV movies and miniseries at the time. The two hit it off and have worked together ever since.
“Nancy has been my friend, colleague and business partner for the better part of 19 years at CBS, Warner Bros. and Lorimar,” Moonves says. “She is an extraordinary executive and individual who has touched success and the people around her at every turn in her career. Quite simply, she is one of television’s best team builders, forward thinkers and success generators.”
Tellem continued to rise through the ranks as Lorimar was acquired by Warner Bros. and the company cranked out the most series on television year after year.
And as she added responsibilities as head of business affairs, she also was raising her family.
“Every time I had a child, I’d always wonder if I was balancing everything. I was always going through this evaluation,” she recalls. “Sometimes you feel you balanced it right, and a week later, it always feels way off.”
Tellem would eventually follow Moonves to CBS in 1997, where they began the current run that has shot the network back to the top of the ratings. Tellem has had a major hand in that success, vaulting up the ranks and constantly expanding her empire.
“With every step, I have been able to expand my job even more, which has been challenging,” she says. “But evolving more and more into the creative side has been a dream come true.”
Today, she is on the front lines of the industry’s attempt to monetize new media, and she loves the fact she is still learning every day. “Everything is unpredictable; we just learn from what we do and everyone else does,” she says. “Two years from now, we’ll look back and say, 'How stupid were we to even try that?’”
So how does Tellem do it all? She starts downing espressos at 6 a.m. but says it is her compulsive list-making that keeps her on track. “I love lists; I start them at 3 a.m. It’s a sick thing,” she says. “Plus, as I get older, I realize I used to remember a lot more.”
But while lists keep everything in order, she says it is her family that gets her through the day. “They are the most centering thing in my life. With all I’ve done, my kids are like, 'Whatever.’ I am still just the mom who embarrasses them.”