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ABC executive Steve McPherson quits the night before Summer TV Press Tour 2010

By Lisa de Moraes
Thursday, July 29, 2010; C03

LOS ANGELES The bar has been set impossibly high for networks at Summer TV Press Tour 2010 -- the head of ABC Entertainment has already up and quit.

CBS kicked things off Wednesday morning as well as it could, announcing four new companies whose bosses have decided to put their employees to work -- for free, according to the show's producer -- on "Undercover Boss," the reality series in which The Boss goes undercover to figure out which middle manager is bungling His Vision and making life so difficult for The Deserving Worker Bees.

This season, "Undercover Boss" will feature NASCAR, DirecTV, Chiquita Brands and Great Wolf Resorts.

"Undercover Boss" was the No. 1-ranked new series of last season, which wrapped in May; the show clocked an average of nearly 18 million viewers.

One TV critic wondered, what with so many people knowing about -- and watching -- the show, how there are any employees left anywhere who, when a "new employee" shows up with a camera crew in tow, don't immediately say to themselves -- "Aha! 'Undercover Boss' has arrived, and that 'new employee' is my boss!"

"If you hear hoofbeats, you don't think 'zebra,' " CBS programming president Nina Tassler responded, during her Q&A session.

She declined to discuss what that actually meant, but we think it was a reference to that old medical gag about how if you hear hooves, think "horse," not "zebra" -- doctor-speak for "look for the most obvious explanation."

Except, in this case, wouldn't "Undercover Boss" be the horse and not the zebra?

The hoof noises seemed to be getting closer. Our head began to hurt.

Tassler would not clarify the "procedure" that the producers had for picking out the least suspicious, most TV-illiterate employees at DirecTV, NASCAR, Chiquita Brands and Great Wolf Resorts. She just smiled sweetly and assured TV critics that the methods were "effective," insisting, "I'm excited."

Churning, churning

When ABC Entertainment chief Steve McPherson quit his job the night before Summer TV Press Tour 2010 officially got underway at the Beverly Hills Hilton hotel, it became the leitmotif of every executive Q&A session that would follow.

When CBS's Tassler got her at-bat with TV critics Wednesday morning, she was asked if she envied the executive churn rate at ABC and if there was "any downside to not having more churn" at CBS, where most of the executives have worked together for years.

You can't make this stuff up.

A lesser woman would have called the reporter a nincompoop and moved on to the next question. Heck, Steve McPherson would have called the reporter a nincompoop and moved on to the next question. We miss McPherson so much.

But Tassler was brought up better than that. So, instead of calling the reporter a nincompoop and shoving off for the next question, she -- with incredible patience, as though she were talking to a much-loved child who had been dropped on its head in infancy -- explained that "stability is a good thing," and that CBS has stability in its executive suite because it's, you know, getting more viewers than any other network in the United States of America. And, she continued to explain slowly and clearly, when you see a lot of churn in a network's executive ranks, it usually means the network is not doing so well.

"As far as Steve goes, I thought, 'Damn, he got out of doing Press Tour!' " Tassler could not resist adding.

In case you missed it: McPherson totally upstaged everyone coming to Summer TV Press Tour 2010 this week and next when he up and quit late Tuesday.

McPherson was scheduled to appear in front of TV critics Sunday. His Q&A session was always one of the highlights of any Press Tour because it was always touch and go whether blows would be exchanged. It is a great loss to the Press Tour. The coverage of television is, like boxing, not what it used to be.

Chen's all over CBS

After grilling CBS's Tassler as to why her network did not get rid of her and others like her with greater regularity, like the other networks, TV critics wanted to know why the wife of the CEO of CBS is starring in not one, not two, but three of the network's shows. This has to be some kind of record.

Julie Chen added another show to her CBS empire last week when the network announced that she would be one of the chicks on its new daytime "The View" knockoff. Chen also hosts "Big Brother" and anchors "The Early Show."

The gag at CBS is that this new talk show is not a "The View" knockoff because:

(a) It was the idea of actress Sara Gilbert when she became a mom, and Gilbert is executive-producing.

(b) All the chicks sitting around the kitchen table on the new show are "moms," which makes it totally different than "The View."

To drive home exactly how different this show is from "The View," CBS has decided to call the new program "The Talk."

"Did you guys talk about that at all when you considered picking up the show? What do you say to [us] who say that there's certainly somebody else besides the wife of the CEO" who's qualified to star in one of these shows, one critic asked Tassler, adding "you know -- three shows?!"

It was at this moment that Tassler began to try to run out the clock. It was awesome:

Sara Gilbert, who I happen to have represented as an actress 25 years ago . . . she pitched the show. . . . I don't think there is a place you can go in this country right now where you don't see an article about a new mother and a child, a parent and a child, a parenting relationship or so on, so certainly we think it's in the zeitgeist. . . . It started as a $25,000 Internet presentation. I said, "Sara, I'm going to come to your house and I'll film you." It literally started like that. . . . And then it picked up momentum and we started talking about topics and subject matter and so on.

Finally, Tassler got around to further testing the elasticity of the "it was Sara's idea" story:

"The bottom line is, the executive producer of the show, Sara Gilbert, said, 'What about Julie? Do you think she would be interested?' And we followed her lead. And truth is, I was involved. I made the decision. I don't think Leslie's unhappy with the decision, but we're thrilled to have her."

It was a calculated gamble on Tassler's part that any group of people who would ask her why CBS didn't fire people more often would also buy into this explanation about casting the CEO's wife.

Instincts like that are worth millions in Hollywood.

Her origin myth mostly held -- though there were some skeptics:

"You know, if I was an executive producer and I was developing a show that was competing against at least two other shows [for the time slot], I would try to get the wife of the CEO on it," one critic responded -- a bit snippily.

"Really? You know what? The show screened great and it tested the best of all the pilots we shot this season," Tassler responded, sweet as you please.

"So, a Scientologist, the wife of the CBS CEO, and a lesbian walk into a bar . . . ," one reporter mumbled quietly.

(Chen's co-stars on the show include Gilbert, who will play executive producer/Lesbian Mom; Leah Remini, formerly of CBS's "King of Queens," who will play the Sassy Scientologist Who Lets Her Kids Eat Sugar Mom; Holly Robinson Peete, who is married to former NFL quarterback Rodney Peete and will play Football Wife Mom; Sharon Osbourne, the mother of Ozzy Osbourne's children, who will play They Don't Come Much Crazier Old Mom; and Broadway actress Marissa Jaret Winokur, who will play Had Baby Via Surrogate Mom.)

Chen says they're still working out what will be her role on "The Early Show" going forward -- most likely she'll be a "consultant" doing taped pieces for the show, because three full-time gigs would be "too much, even for the ChenBot," Chen joked, riffing on her robotic reputation:

"I'm.

Not.

Programmed.

To.

Do.

That."

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