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How I Made It: Nina Tassler

CBS programming chief takes a lot of pitches in search of a hit

July 25, 2010|By Meg James, Los Angeles Times
  • CBS Entertainment President Nina Tassler has been involved in the creation of such hits as “Judging Amy,” “CSI” and “Undercover Boss.”
CBS Entertainment President Nina Tassler has been involved in the creation… (Al Seib / Los Angeles Times )

The gig: President of CBS Entertainment. Tassler is in charge of the network's entertainment programming. In her 13 years with CBS, she has been involved in the creation of such hits as "Judging Amy," " CSI: Crime Scene Investigation," "Undercover Boss" and "The Good Wife."

First act: Tassler grew up in upstate New York, the oldest of three. Her late father, an audiovisual engineer who worked briefly at CBS, was Jewish and her mother Puerto Rican. In 1960, when Tassler was about 3, her parents inherited a children's camp in the Berkshires, which they ran for years. It was progressive in the civil rights era, welcoming African American and Native American children. The multicultural experience "shaped my whole philosophy, political and social, for my whole life," she said.

When she was 14, her parents took her to see "The Rothschilds," starring Hal Linden and Jill Clayburgh, on Broadway. "I even made the dress I wore. Every seam was perfect," she recalled. "The musical was unbelievable. It transformed my life. I knew at that point that I wanted to be in the theater."

The audition: After graduating from Boston University, she moved to New York. Tassler volunteered at the Roundabout Theatre Company, waited on tables and pursued acting jobs. "I became the callback queen," she said. She tried out for "Come Back, Little Sheba." "I had four callbacks and didn't get the part," she said. "Two weeks later, they fired the actress, and they had me come back. I was one of two actresses, and I still didn't get the part. I said, 'That's it.'"

So she worked backstage. "In those days, you worked 90 hours and made $25 a week, but it was the thrill of being in the theater. I always had a good work ethic, but that solidified what it means to work hard and long hours."

Tassler, the pilot project: In 1984, Tassler followed her husband, Jerry Levine, to Los Angeles. He had a role in the movie "Teen Wolf." She struggled to find a job. It came down to two offers: a receptionist at a talent agency or a secretary at Thrifty Corp., the drugstore chain. "Thank God I went the route of the agency."

In 1990, while working as an agent with Triad Artists, she learned about an opening at Lorimar Television, the studio that produced "Dallas" and "Full House." She desperately wanted to be a TV executive. "As an agent, once you make a deal you're done, and I hated letting go of the material," she said. She asked everyone she knew to call Lorimar's chief, Leslie Moonves. "He had to see me. I knew I was perfect for the job."

Series commitment: Moonves finally agreed to interview her. "I was painfully nervous. The script that was running through my head was: 'This was the most important meeting of your life. Just start talking and don't stop until you have the job.' I went in and just started talking." After the interview, she again asked everyone she knew to lobby Moonves. "He told them that he didn't want to hear my name again.... My big break was that he hired me."

Ratings star: Tassler and her team sift through hundreds of show pitches each year to find ones with potential. "For 'CSI,' it was something that I remember hearing in the pitch meeting," she said. "I was always a big fan of 'Quincy,' and I loved the idea of puzzle solving." But not every TV executive would have taken the pitch. The show's producer called late one Friday in October, the very end of development season. "It was dark, I was in my car, and I was coming home after a long day at work," she said. "I was so tired and I said, 'OK, we will hear the pitch.' … When I was in drama development you hear anywhere between 500 to 600 pitches a season, and you do feel like you hit the wall. But I will never say, 'No, I won't hear that.' … We heard the pitch a couple days later and bought the show."

(Not) only CBS. Tassler has worked for Moonves, now chief executive of CBS Corp., for 20 years. She followed him to CBS in 1997 and became a key player in the network's turnaround. CBS now has more viewers than any other TV network. When she's not working, Tassler is a voracious reader and spends time with her husband, now a director, their 22-year-old son and 11-year-old daughter.

Advice: "Just sell your fish." Tassler tells a story of two immigrant brothers who built a booming fish trade. Each brother had a son, and they decided to pass the business to them. That opened a rift because only one son wanted to be in the business. Instead of favoring one son, the fathers divided the business. The son who didn't want to be in the business protested, saying family harmony was more important. His father said, "Son, just sell your fish."

"In other words, there is so much drama that goes on in our daily lives," Tassler said. "At the end of the day, it is about doing your best work — controlling what you can control and not trying to control what you can't."

meg.james@latimes.com

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