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The TV Column: Kutcher, Sheen and ‘Two and a Half Men’

By ,

BEVERLY HILLS, Calif.

The Reporters Who Cover Television timidly asked CBS programming chief Nina Tassler about new “Two and a Half Men” star Ashton Kutcher on Wednesday during Summer TV Press Tour 2011.

Kutcher will play heartbroken Internet geek/billionaire Walden Schmidt when the show debuts its first Charlie Sheen-less season.

The show’s reboot will be a two-episode arc, Tassler volunteered. That, much to the surprise of TRWCT, who had not dared to kick off the Q&A session with Kutcher questions. Maybe they were embarrassed, having so steadfastly dismissed CBS in general, and “Men” in particular, all these years, on the grounds both were too old-school — only to find that CBS is suddenly the prettiest dress in the shop heading into the fall.

In case you’ve been living under a flat rock, Warner Bros. TV — which produces “Men” for CBS — shut down production of the show last spring and sent Sheen to rehab, then cited what it called his continued erratic behavior and sacked him. And you could see its point, given the things Sheen had said about the studio, and network suits, and show creator Chuck Lorre during his Ranting on the Radio period. That was in the days and weeks leading up to the Warner Bros. decision to give Sheen and his jingle-writing, Malibu-beachfront-property-owning butterfly, Charlie Harper, the hook.

“Oh, where do I begin?” Tassler joked to kill time, as she prepared to leap and skip around the question like some kind of broadcast-TV Nijinsky.

“What we learned is that we have an extraordinary cast. . . . We have extraordinary writers. We have extraordinary actors. And that there is great value in hiring an actor like Ashton Kutcher . . . an extraordinarily professional, talented, funny, gifted actor who comes with a tremendous amount of commitment and enthusiasm, embraced by an extraordinarily talented cast,” Tassler said.

“And what you learn is the show is brilliantly written . . . ” — did she not realize this before? — “. . . and extraordinarily produced and that you have an opportunity moving forward to create this exciting new character and deliver a great show. So, that’s just a few of the things I’ve learned,” said Tassler, like someone who has been, well, extraordinarily well prepped for a deposition.

The reporters, of course, had hoped for an answer more along the lines of, “I have learned never ever again to hire someone to be the star of one of our series who is known to have a substance-abuse problem.” So they tried again, with: “Would you have done anything different with what you learned, going back?”

See, this is what’s wrong with a Press Tour Q&A session. It works only if both sides know it’s a deposition. Tassler had clearly been prepped for one, but the critics were still pussyfooting around the topic of interest with their super-politely worded questions when they needed to be hitting her over the head with questions shaped like heavy blunt objects.

Tassler, assuming her well-prepped-for-a-deposition look, answered: “Who could have predicted we’d be here six months ago?”

Answer: About 80 percent of the reporters in the room.

“But the great news is that the show will be as irreverent as it has always been,” Tassler continued. “Our Program Practices people are already on high alert!”

“Is there anything that you wish could have been handled differently?” the reporter said. “Is there anything CBS could have done before it got to the point where he melted down so publicly?”

The grilling was beginning to get to Tassler. She began to recite Kutcher’s “extraordinary” attributes again, like “extraordinary” was a very big new advertiser on CBS and this was some Press Tour Product Placement deal.

She declined to confirm the rumor that show creator Lorre, who was on the receiving end of some of Sheen’s more colorful comments during his Ranting on the Radio phase — and whom Sheen has sued over his termination — has killed off Sheen’s character and that there will be a funeral at the start of the season.

“I will not confirm or deny that,” said Tassler. That not being a flat-out denial, it will be taken as confirmation by most of the bloggers and tweeters in the room.

Emboldened, one critic noted petulantly that while Ted Danson — who is joining the cast of “CSI” with the welcome exit of Laurence Fishburne — was coming to the Press Tour that day, Kutcher was not.

“They are in production,” Tassler said, but even she acted as if she knew that was pure horseradish.

“Don’t forget, you’ve got your blocking. And you’ve got your run-through. You’ve got rewrites. . . . A tremendous amount of weight and effort have been put into this episode,” she said, but without any real chirpiness.

One reporter actually asked her whether she would commit to not casting actors who are known for “erratic” behavior in the future.

“That would probably be every actor in the business, so — kinda hard,” Tassler shot back.

The new News

CBS News Chairman Jeff Fager, President David Rhodes and evening-news anchor Scott Pelley came to the Press Tour to talk about the many changes at CBS News — such as naming Fager chairman, Rhodes president and Pelley the evening-news anchor.

Some critics wondered whether the ratings increases that the evening-news broadcast has enjoyed since Pelley became anchor a few weeks ago were owed to viewers who’ve returned to the newscast because they’re “relieved Katie [Couric] is not there anymore.”

“No doubt some of the people coming to us have been coming back,” Fager acknowledged. “I think we did lose some viewers in recent years. Our hope is we can gain back some core audience, but also get new ones.”

Another reporter took it further, suggesting that CBS’s newscast was doing better because silver-haired, super-groomed Pelley is a “father figure” and people like getting their news from some kind of made-for-TV Perfect Dad talking to us.

Fager, who knows what quicksand sounds like, deftly suggested as an alternative that Pelley’s popularity is owed to his being “the opposite of what you hear from cable news networks.”

“You don’t know where he stands on something,” Fager said.

“If we get it right, you’ll never know what he really thinks” on any given subject in the news, Rhodes jumped in. Viewers do want to be reassured “there is that approach somewhere, and Scott is the embodiment of that.”

One reporter told them he’d “had the misfortune of being in Florida during the Casey Anthony trial” and was disturbed at revelations that networks were paying significant sums of money for pictures and home video to secure people for exclusive interviews without, technically, having paid them for their interviews.

The reporter wondered whether they would say on the record that CBS News will not engage in such shenanigans.

“I am not like that, one little bit,” Fager said stoutly. “I think it’s a terrible practice. . . . I know it’s happened in stories in the past for certain . . . small fees for pictures. . . . I’m against it.”

“That’s not who we are,” Pelley added heroically.

It was one of many times during the Q&A that Pelley sounded and looked very Dan Ratheresque, except that Rather would have taken off his jacket and rolled up his sleeves. Yes, they’re both from Texas, as one TV critic noted, but so was Walter Cronkite.

But you could have sworn you were listening to Rather when Pelley began to regale reporters with a story about having learned journalism at a “little, wood-burning TV station, literally in a cotton field.”

“Adults in my town were people who survived the Dust Bowl,” Pelley said. “People who stuck through the Dust Bowl and never left. And you learn something from those people . . . about family, and honor, and sticking to it. And I’m very proud of that heritage.”

These days, Pelley said, he’s accosted by “people crossing the street to shake my hand and say: ‘Hey, I caught what you’re doing. Please keep doing what you’re doing.’ ”

Rather, Pelley noted, was a “great mentor of mine,” adding that when his own appointment was announced, the very first note of congratulations he received came to him via courier in a gray envelope — apparently a gray envelope is a Dan Rather signature — saying, “well done and well deserved.”

“I hate the way it ended,” Pelley said of Rather’s long run at the news operation, “but it will always have that very important place in CBS News and our history.”

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