Press tour: CBS boss Nina Tassler on Charlie Sheen, Ashton Kutcher, Ted Danson and more
CBS has the most stable executive team in network television, with most of the key people at the network having been in place for 15-plus years. It has one of the most stable schedules on network TV. It has the most familiar ratings story on network TV, being the most-watched overall network every year but usually trailing behind in younger viewers.
It is reliable, dependable, always there - and for that reason, usually not the most exciting network to cover at press tour. There was a period in the mid-'00s where the most controversial question at each CBS executive panel had to do with whether "Joan of Arcadia" would ever come back. (Hint: no.)
This year, though, CBS was the stable network with a whole lot of crazy stuff happening.
We have new leads on two of the network's biggest series, with Ashton Kutcher replacing noted lunatic Charlie Sheen on "Two and a Half Men" and Ted Danson trying to revive the original "CSI" after Laurence Fishburne sleepwalked through two and a half seasons.
We also have "CSI" changing nights for the first time in a decade, CBS being the first network in years to put a scripted show ("Rules of Engagement") on Saturday night on its fall schedule, the first CBS crime drama spin-off of this era ("Criminal Minds: Suspect Behavior") to not get a second season, and so many other odd matters that there was only a single question in our 25-minute Q&A with entertainment president Nina Tassler about a new show.
(Fienberg's live-blog has a full account of the session.)
Obviously, the big topic of interest (as opposed to "Person of Interest," the new show that came up ever-so-briefly) was the transition from Sheen to Kutcher, who will play an "internet billionaire with a broken heart" named Walden Schmidt. (Tassler's reveal of the name and basic character description was the first time on this tour where you could audibly hear an increase in the number of keystrokes in the ballroom.)
Tassler deftly sidestepped any attempts to ask what CBS could or should have done differently to head off Charlie Sheen's meltdown, instead going on and on about the "extraordinary" actors, writers, crewmembers, etc., remaining on "Men," and insisting, "Six months ago, today? We're worlds apart. Everybody made the decisions relative to the situation at hand. I'm just happy to be where we are today."
Tassler was a bit less nimble in getting around a question about why CBS declined to do a panel featuring the reconfigured "Men" cast, especially since Danson and the "CSI" team were arriving later in the day.
"They're in production," she said to audible groans from reporters who are keenly aware that every show is in production this week. She later explained that among their concerns about taking Kutcher, Jon Cryer and company away from the set for even a few hours was that, "You've got your blocking."
(Ted Danson, on the other hand, is the Rudolf Nureyev of sitcom blocking: Full body control, picks up the steps in about five seconds, no worries at all. Whatever Kutcher learned about blocking on "That '70s Show" is clearly long-forgotten.)
Kutcher and Danson - who will play a new crime scene investigator named DB Russell(*) - are both former TV stars stepping into long-running series, and fans of long-running series are often resistant to change. Tassler tried to look at the moves as a creative positive.
(*) Not to be confused with DB Sweeney, DB Cooper, DB Woodside, TE Russell, or DW Moffatt.
"The whole addition of a new cast member can bring about a wonderful opportunity to reveal to a whole new audience about the existing cast," she argued.
Of course, the man Danson is replacing at "CSI," Laurence Fishburne, had an opportunity to reveal things about the existing cast, but the ratings for that show trended downward after he replaced William Petersen, and few fans seemed happy with his character. Tassler admitted that Petersen left "big shoes to fill," but also said that the turmoil created among the team during Fishburne's tenure will give Danson some built-in likability, since "He has to really reconnect the team."
The exhaustive, delicate process of sitcom blocking aside, Tassler had answers prepared for all the tricky questions.
She shrugged off the failure of "Suspect Behavior" as "specific to the show itself," and not something symptomatic of the larger state of CBS' aging crime franchises.
Asked if the Sheen experience would lead CBS to put contract policies in place to deal with actors who have a history of erratic behavior, she quipped, "That would probably be every actor in the business."
On the decision to bump "CSI" from Thursdays to Wednesdays, she insisted that "Person of Interest" tested so highly with focus groups that "it was a show that claimed that time period."
So even though there are strange doings at the Tiffany Network, the executive session was ultimately as smooth and assured as any other in a more predictable year.