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CBS executive Nancy Tellem may soon take a smaller role

The television chief is said to be talking with CEO Les Moonves about assuming a less hands-on position.

October 07, 2009|Meg James

At CBS, breaking up is hard to do. But not impossible.

After two years of saying she would like to try something new, top CBS entertainment executive Nancy Tellem appears to be close to stepping down from her job running the CBS television network and TV production studio.

CBS insiders confirmed that Tellem, president of CBS Network Television Entertainment Group, had been in talks with her boss, CBS Corp. Chief Executive Leslie Moonves, to assume a less hands-on role at the company.

Tellem's exit would mark the second high-level departure at CBS in recent months after the summer resignation of Chief Financial Officer Fred Reynolds, who had been a trusted advisor to Moonves. It also points up the ongoing absence of a designated No. 2 at CBS, where Moonves, who turned 60 this week, has long operated without grooming an apparent successor. The company lacks a chief operating officer.

Such a departure would also indicate another senior-level transition in the upper echelons of Hollywood, which in recent weeks have seen management shake-ups at two major movie studios and the prospect that entertainment giant NBC Universal could be sold.

Moonves, who has put together a highly stable management team, does not want to lose his longtime lieutenant, upon whom he has heavily relied since their days together at Lorimar in the 1980s, said people close to the situation.

Even if Tellem resigns from her current post, she is likely to have a role at CBS, according to knowledgeable people.

"Nancy has worked for Leslie for 23 years, and at CBS for 13 years; neither of those things will change," said one CBS executive who asked not to be identified because no decision had been reached.

Tellem is interested in taking on a "broader strategic role that would involve content creation and distribution," one CBS executive said.

Tellem was in France this week at an international TV market and could not be reached for comment. The blog Deadline Hollywood first reported that Tellem was considering leaving.

The executive changes come as CBS is picking up both in the ratings and among investors. After a bruising nine months on Wall Street, CBS stock has rebounded, closing Tuesday at $12.16, up 34 cents.

In early July, its shares were trading for $6. The company, heavily reliant upon advertising revenue and hard-hit by the recession at its TV and radio stations, saw its financial position improve when auto companies began spending more to buy ads for the government's "cash for clunkers" program.

The rise in CBS' share price is a relief for Chairman Sumner Redstone, who has been struggling for the last year to pay down his huge debt. Redstone's family company, National Amusements Inc., faces a $500-million debt repayment at the end of the month and has been trying to sell some of its movie theaters to raise the amount.

Tellem, 56, does not have a corporate-level position at CBS. Instead, she has been Moonves' point person on the West Coast, managing all entertainment operations at the CBS network and television studios. A lawyer who became CBS Entertainment president, helping to develop such hits as "Survivor" and "CSI," she is also the company's liaison for the CW, a joint venture with Warner Bros. Entertainment.

CBS has gotten off to a strong start to the new TV season, with shows such as "NCIS" and "The Big Bang Theory" growing in the ratings. The No. 1 network in prime time has one of the few new hit dramas in "NCIS: Los Angeles."

CBS executives said it had not been decided whether Moonves would replace Tellem if she assumed a new role in the company. It was also unclear whether those who report directly to Tellem -- CBS Entertainment President Nina Tassler and CBS Television Studios President David Stapf -- would instead report to him.

One executive said it would be unlikely for Moonves to make a high-profile hire from the outside because he is known for being loyal to his longtime associates.


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