CBS Entertainment President Nina Tassler took the stage Sunday morning at the Summer 2012 Television Critics Association Tour carrying a cuddly stuffed monkey that was wearing the "ducky tie" seen this season on the network's "How I Met Your Mother." This was the first time I can recall a network president starting a session off on an overtly humorous note since Jeff Zucker walked out on stage during NBC's executive panel during the July 2001 tour wearing a flack jacket with the Peacock's logo on it.
Zucker's visual was designed to cut the tension in the room, as he was at the time still relatively new to the role of network president and had been on the receiving end of much negative press about his reliance that summer on lowbrow reality programs to boost ratings. Tassler, on the other hand, was just having fun with some of her competitors' experiences during this tour – especially the endless copy generated around NBC's cocktail party, which featured as its main attractions Crystal the Monkey from "Animal Practice" and Gov. Sarah Palin.
"It's been a TCA full of cell phone announcements from the stage, monkeys, Sarah Palin, renegotiations," Tassler noted, referring, in order, to NBC Entertainment President Kevin Reilly calling Mariah Carey on his cell phone during Fox's executive session to confirm that she was joining "American Idol," the adorable Crystal, the camera-ready Palin and the "Modern Family" cast's widely publicized salary issues. "I couldn't resist," she added with a smile.
After pointing out the monkey's "HIMYM" tie, Tassler said, "I think he's hungry, so I'm going to send him back." With that, a CBS page whisked the little guy off stage. (The monkey returned for photo opportunities at the CBS party that night.)
Tassler is known for her energetic stage presence, but even that enviable skill doesn't always guarantee a lively executive session at TCA tours – especially when they are scheduled early on the Sunday morning following the annual Television Critics Association Awards ceremony and after party. So bringing out the monkey – which, I'm told, was her idea – was a brilliant move. It in fact woke up the room and set a positive tone not only for the session to come but for the entire day, which concluded with one of the best parties of the tour.
Not that there was any need for positive reinforcement, as Tassler made immediately clear. "We're No. 1 in viewers. We're No. 1 in upfront revenue. We're No. 1 in Emmy nominations," she happily declared. "We were No. 1 [last season] in 25‑54. We beat ABC and NBC in 18‑49 for the sixth straight season. And we grew our audience in both viewers and adults 18‑49."
"While we enjoy winning in all the categories, 18‑49 is not the end all it's made out to be," Tassler continued. "We sell more advertising against 25‑54 than we do [against] 18‑49, and it's worked out pretty well for us. Last season we introduced two breakout hits in the No. 1 new drama 'Person of Interest' [and] the No. 1 new comedy, '2 Broke Girls.' We're excited about what these two shows can do in Season 2. I'm also really proud of the environment we've created for launching and sustaining hit shows, from development, to scheduling, to marketing, to current programming.
"When a producer comes through our doors, they know the bar is high. They know it's competitive. They know it's hard to get on the schedule. But when they do, they are given the best chance for success. If you look at this year's schedule, 80 percent of our returning scripted shows have already been sold into syndication. That's really good business for CBS. It's really good business for our studio partners and our content creators. In fact, in the last three years we've had a freshman show sold into syndication before the second season even started: 'NCIS: L.A.,' 'Hawaii Five‑0' and '2 Broke Girls.' That's even better business."
Perhaps it was Tassler's infectious enthusiasm. Maybe it was the monkey. But the session that followed can only be described as a dream for any network entertainment president, many of whom have at one time or another expressed great reluctance when confronted with the demands of appearing before the TCA membership for approximately 35 minutes twice a year. There were no confrontations, no awkward discussions of serious issues and no uncomfortable silences. (In fact, the entire day played out that way.) The greatest urgency was reserved for questions about the likelihood of a possible ninth season for "How I Met Your Mother," which is about to begin its eighth, and CBS' plans this season to minimize the damage done in the fall to its Sunday night series, especially the semi-serialized "The Good Wife," by football overruns.
In response to queries about "HIMYM," Tassler said, "We've got a great relationship with [executive producers] Craig Thomas and Carter Bays, and certainly they have a very strategic wrap‑up to the show. [That would be finally identifying the mother in the show's title.] They know we want the show to come back next year. We are having conversations right now about extending it. … We're in early conversations, and we're pretty optimistic."
As for football overruns, "We're developing new SMS texting technology to make sure our audience knows that the show is going to be delayed," Tassler explained. "For us anyway, having NFL overruns, it's great. All of our numbers are up on Sunday night as a result of it. But between texting, between online notifications, between Facebook technology, literally we do everything possible, and will continue to do everything, to make sure that the audience knows that ["The Good Wife" and "The Mentalist"] will be on later as a result of it.
"So at the end of the day, we are continuing to develop and create new ways of notifying viewers when the show is going to be premiering later that night," she concluded. "We are very sensitive to how it impacts the audience of the show."