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Washington Post

20 July 2005

CBS Entertainment Chief: She Could've Danced All Night

By Lisa de Moraes

BEVERLY HILLS, Calif., July 19

For reasons we don't clearly understand, chicks who become suits in the TV industry are constitutionally incapable of giving straight answers to TV critics' questions.

On the other hand, they're beautiful to watch as they dance around them.

Take CBS Entertainment President Nina Tassler, performing solo for the first time Tuesday during the CBS executive session at Summer TV Press Tour 2005.

Usually, the Women of Viacom TV, including Tassler (who replaced Nancy Tellem when she was upped to president of CBS Paramount Network Television Entertainment Group) and UPN chief Dawn Ostroff, do a pas de deux with Leslie Moonves, CBS CEO and Viacom co-chief operating officer, during these network executive Q&A sessions.

This time, he wasn't joining them. Critics love Moonves. He's not much of a dancer, but he can answer a question like nobody's business.

On the other hand, Tassler, who's been on the job a mere 10 months, already is one of the best dancers the TV industry has ever produced. One of her most graceful bits came when a critic asked where CBS would draw the line on "how much mayhem you can cause to the poor victims" on procedural crime dramas. (If you've ever watched an episode of "CSI," you know what he was talking about.)

"We look to our audience to tell us when they've had enough," Tassler pirouetted. Plus, she said, there are "different crime elements represented in each different show" with "different looks" and "different tones" and "different styles."

"There is something for everybody, and the audience seems to be on board," she explained.

"But have you reached the point of telling the producers to dial back a little bit and maybe not cut the head off or light the body on fire?" asked the persistent critic.

"We trust our producers to be creative in their storytelling and follow their creative path," Tassler tapped.

"So you haven't admonished them at this point?"

"Again, we trust our producers -- and we've got Program Practices. When we've gone too far, they let us know," Tassler waltzed.

"So you have admonished them?"

Tassler, changing costumes, began to do the funky chicken.

And she got her krump on when one critic asked whether she had ever disagreed with Moonves:

"Hmmmm. No."

Critics seemed offended by CBS's Sunday telefilm strategy, which brought us "Spring Break Shark Attack." And who can forget "Locusts!" (CBS promo: "If you can hear the buzz -- it's too late!") For this coming season, the network has planned a "Locusts!" sequel, "Vampire Bats," in which Lucy Lawless reprises her tour de force performance as a voracious-insect specialist, now a college professor in search of a simpler life and who is caught up in the investigation of the death of a student whose body is completely drained of blood, and realizes that the killers are vampire bats that have mutated because of a tainted water supply.

"We know we're up against a juggernaut" on Sunday nights, Tassler said, referring to ABC ratings magnet "Desperate Housewives." "So we're trying some high-concept, popcorn movies."

During her solo debut, Tassler stumbled just once, when she called the network's upcoming miniseries about Pope John Paul II a "papal page turner."

Critics, who can be so unkind, seized on that mistake in an otherwise flawless dance; you've probably read the trade paper headline:

"CBS Prexy Plugs Papal Page Turner to Hix Crix."

"When I hear you say it's a papal page turner, that worries me -- what kind of sensitivity are you taking with this story, and what do you think people will learn from it?" asked one critic (who afterward noted to The TV Column that this is the same network that gave us the miniseries "The Reagans." Or, to be completely accurate, did not give us "The Reagans.") Tassler, recovering her step, began to do the lambada all by herself, which is hard to do:

The PJPII mini has "really top-drawer" production values, she said, explaining that Karol Wojtyla had been a resistance fighter and actor before becoming pope and "lived in very turbulent times," adding that when she called the project a "page turner" she was referring to the "backdrop of the story," which is very "exciting and dangerous and suspenseful."

"Is the pope attacked by locusts?" snapped one critic.

"No -- vampire bats," she responded.


Jennifer Love Hewitt, making her second appearance at Summer TV Press Tour 2005, says that since starring in CBS's new one-hour series "Ghost Whisperer" as a woman who talks to dead people, she's no longer afraid every two seconds that she's going to be run over by a bus.

"I was terrified of death -- I'm not now," she said, batting her false eyelashes and flicking her tumbling auburn tresses at the throng of smitten Reporters Who Cover Television, who had packed themselves around closely to ask more questions after her show's Q&A session.

"I live every day for the moment -- I don't want unfinished business" when she dies, she explained perkily, while the little diamond cross and two diamond hearts sparkled on the delicate chains around her neck.

In her new series, Hewitt's character helps dead people to resolve their "unfinished business" so they can "cross over." Not coincidentally, professional dead-person talker-to James Van Praagh, who worked on two highly rated talking-to-dead-people flicks for CBS, is a co-executive producer on "Ghost Whisperer."

Shows about dead people are hot because "people want to know what death is" and "not everybody is comfortable going to a therapist," but they are comfortable watching TV, Hewitt explained, her chest heaving softly in her ivory lace bustier. Since Sept. 11, 2001, she said, people have been concerned about the topic because we continue to "lose all these extraordinary" people who are fighting "to take care of our country and our better lifestyle."

"When we lose a person, we lose one of our kind," she explained.

Patricia Arquette's role as a woman who talks to dead people, on NBC's "Medium," is very different from Hewitt's role as a woman who talks to dead people, she told the adoring crowd of Reporters Who Cover Television, because Arquette's character has been married a long time, while Hewitt plays a newlywed. And Arquette's character solves crimes, while her character does not.

"You know what?" she asked rhetorically during the Q&A session. "My character is absolutely one of my favorite people I've been introduced to."

And, better yet, this was "the easiest job in the world" because, Hewitt said -- while noting "I really shouldn't say this" -- no acting was required.

"The hardest thing for me to do was not to cry in every scene."