President of CBS Entertainment and CBS Productions
Born c. 1953; married to Arn Tellem (a sports agent); children: Mike, Matty (son), Eric. Education: Received undergraduate degree from University of California—Berkeley, and J.D. from the Hastings College of Law.
Office —CBS Entertainment, 7800 Beverly Blvd., Los Angeles, CA 90036.
Intern to Oakland, California, congressman Ron Dellums, in Washington, DC, 1974; worked in the legal–affairs department of Lorimar Television; served as executive vice president of business and financial affairs at Warner Bros. Television; CBS Productions President, 1997—, and president of CBS Entertainment, August, 1998—.
Nancy Tellem is president of CBS Entertainment, the division of the broadcast network that brings shows like Survivor and Joan of Arcadia to the airwaves. Tellem, who worked closely with former network president Les Moonves, has overseen programming for CBS's prime–time, daytime, late–night, and Saturday–morning line–up since 1998. She was named No. 3 on the Power 100 list in the 2003 Women in Entertainment issue of the Hollywood Reporter, which called her "a linchpin of the executive team that has orchestrated one of the great turnaround stories in network television history."
Born in the early 1950s, Tellem earned an undergraduate degree from the University of California at Berkeley, and spent one summer as a Capitol Hill intern for an Oakland, California, legislator. She went on to law school at San Francisco's Hastings College of Law, part of the University of California system, and found her niche working in the legal–affairs department of Lorimar Television, one of the most successful production companies of the 1980s. Lorimar eventually morphed into Warner Bros. Television (WBTV), and Tellem held a similar position there.
Tellem knew Moonves from her Lorimar days, and when Moonves became head of WBTV, he promoted her to executive vice president for business and financial affairs. Moonves jumped ship to CBS in 1995 to become head of its entertainment division, and two years later gave Tellem her first semi–creative post as head of CBS Productions, the unit that created original shows for the network. In early 1998 Moonves was made network president, and in August of that year named Tellem to succeed him as president of CBS Entertainment.
Tellem added the new title to concurrent duties as head of CBS Productions, which she ran with Moonves's input. Though she was now ranked as the most powerful female executive in network television, some industry insiders sniped that she was merely an aide–de–camp to Moonves. Tellem scoffed at such talk in an interview with Lawrie Mifflin of the New York Times. "That's a very male approach, to say 'He'll retain power,' like 'He gets all the marbles.' To me, this is a job that I do, Leslie does, and our creative team does. It's a collaborative group, and our objectives are all the same."
At the time, Tellem was only the second woman ever to hold the top entertainment post at a major broadcast network, after the notable, highly publicized failure of ABC's Jamie Tarses a few years earlier. Mifflin termed Tellem part of a new breed of television executives, "women in their forties who have climbed to executive heights without the burden of being outsiders," the New York Times journalist noted, "earning M.B.A.'s, learning the ropes on roughly equal footing with their male peers, establishing themselves as team players rather than individuals."
CBS's historic prime–time turnaround under Tellem and Moonves took time to implement. There were some early failures before Survivor, Everybody Loves Raymond, and Joan of Arcadia, and it was Tellem's job to tell the writers, actors, and technical staff that a show was going to be axed. She said in the Hollywood Reporter article that "making those calls can be incredibly difficult," but also noted the setbacks helped her help CBS find its footing eventually. "The truth of the matter is, you learn more from your failures than from your successes," she reflected.
Tellem had made CBS Productions the third–largest studio supplier in Hollywood by 2002, but she did encounter problems in her other post as entertainment president with several shows that were said to have transgressed the border between entertainment and poor taste. The first was Hitler: The Rise of Evil, which starred Robert Carlyle as Nazi German dictator Adolf Hitler. The series was based on an acclaimed book by British historian Ian Kershaw, but rabbis and other leaders in the Jewish community excoriated the network for the series, which aired during the May ratings sweeps period in 2003.
Tellem defended the miniseries, noting that it was restricted to presenting Hitler's life and career up to the onset of war in 1939. She also noted that she was the daughter of European Jews who met at medical school in Vienna, Austria, and escaped the continent when Nazi Germany began its campaign to eradicate Europe's Jewish population in the late 1930s. Many relatives on both sides of her family died in concentration camps during World War II. As she told a 2002 gathering of television critics, in her parents' home, the subject of the Holocaust was a delicate one. "The way I was brought up, even mentioning the word gave me chills," Knight Ridder/Tribune News Service writer Gail Shister quoted her as saying. "It all comes down to how it's handled. I'm a political–science buff. I'm more focused on seeing how such a figure can rise to power."
In 2003, Tellem, Moonves, and CBS also came under fire for a planned reality–TV remake of the Beverly Hillbillies, the hit 1960s sitcom about an Ozark Mountain family who become unexpected oil barons and move to the posh Los Angeles suburb. The network decided to cancel a 2004 miniseries on former President Ronald Reagan and his wife just weeks before it was set to air in February. Finally, Tellem took heat for a planned remake of the miniseries Helter Skelter, based on the bestselling book by Vincent Bugliosi about the brutal series of murders in southern California in the late 1960s by Charles Manson and his acolytes. On June 1, 2004, Tellem lost one of her associates when Moonves was named co–president and co–chief operating officer of Viacom, Inc., the parent company of CBS.
Tellem was happy that the network had some notable successes of a less controversial nature, including Joan of Arcadia, about a teenager who converses with God. She is married with three sons, and now has a counterpart at ABC, Susan Lyne, who heads entertainment programming there. Tellem's husband is high–profile sports agent Arn Tellem, who has handled endorsements and contracts for such stars as Kobe Bryant. The Tellems met when both interned in Washington during the summer of 1974, and make their family home in Pacific Palisades, California. "Nancy runs my life," her husband told Sports Illustrated writer Franz Lidz, "and I'm a source of more stress for her."
Broadcasting & Cable, August 24, 1998, p. 40; September 25, 2000, p. 12; January 21, 2002, p. 26.
Buffalo News, January 17, 2003, p. C7.
Daily News (Los Angeles, CA), January 20, 2004, p. U8.
Daily Variety, September 12, 2003, p. A22.
Electronic Media, October 14, 2002, p. 10.
Entertainment Weekly, April 14, 2000, p. 60.
Financial Times, January 21, 2004, p. 12.
Hollywood Reporter, December 2, 2003.
Knight–Ridder/Tribune News Service, July 15, 2002.
MediaWeek, April 12, 2004, p. 24.
New York Times, August 24, 1998.
Sports Illustrated, May 27, 2002, p. 72.
"Top Entertainment Exec Shares Career Insights," Wall Street Journal, http://www.collegejournal.com/careerpaths/findcareerpath/20040331–murphy.html (April 29, 2004).
— Carol Brennan