The 10 Most Powerful Women in Television

Actually, the most powerful people in television are women!

Nina Tassler | Jo Ann Ross

On one wall of Jo Ann Ross’ corner office at Black Rock hangs a black-and-white photo of a ’50s-era CBS upfront presentation, taken when the male sales bosses pitched male clients from the stage of the old Trans-Lux Theatre on 52nd St. Opposite is a framed poster of Winning Colors, who in 1988 became only the third filly to win the Kentucky Derby.

The juxtaposition is perfect, framing a gentle rebuke across the decades, as the caption makes clear: “How does it feel to leave the boys behind?”

Ross was doing that even before CBS chief Les Moonves broke precedent and named her to the top network sales job back in ’02. She had already been the first female executive to spearhead a broadcaster’s Olympic ad sales business for CBS’ coverage of the 1994 Lillehammer and 1998 Nagano Winter Games. In her maiden upfront as the CBS sales chief in 2003, Ross was able to push through an 18 percent CPM increase while generating some $2.2 billion in advance commitments for the network. Media buyers had gotten a blunt reminder of her aggressiveness at the beginning of the network’s presentation that year: In a short film that cast her as a mob assassin, Ross whacked predecessor Joe Abruzzese.

“Joey had been basically an icon here at CBS, so I had to clear the air,” Ross recalls. “Because Joey and every other man in the business will tell you his favorite movie is The Godfather, I figured I’d start off my first official upfront with a bang. So, I killed Joey.”

While Moonves also hammed it up in the clip, playing the mob boss who approved the killing because of Abruzzese’s move to Discovery Networks, the CBS chief was dead serious when he named Ross as Abruzzese’s replacement. Along with her Olympics sales record, Ross’ strategy to sell the new reality series Survivor particularly impressed Moonves. In 2000, she and Abruzzese barnstormed across the country with Survivor creator Mark Burnett, lining up sponsors to defray production costs well before a frame of the show was ever shot.

Ross has become “incredibly trusted by Les Moonves,” says a television executive who knows the CBS team well, because of how tightly run her operation is. “Strictly business,” the executive observes, almost quaintly so. “It’s all a bit like the 1950s.”

The 57-year-old Ross, who lives on the Upper East Side with her anesthesiologist  husband, Michael Zelman, is joined at the hip with L.A.-based CBS Entertainment president Nina Tassler. The latter, a transplanted New Yorker, all but single-handedly established CBS as the home of the procedural in 1999 when she landed the rights to CSI, buying the pilot for the original series from producer Anthony Zuiker before he even left the pitch meeting.

Industry observers sometimes refer to Ross and Tassler as Thelma and Louise (in fact, Tassler was a roommate of Geena Davis, who played Thelma, at Boston University in the late ’70s). “It’s not so much [that] they finish each other’s sentences,” says one national TV buyer. “Nina is a world-class talker. Once she gets started on a train of thought, you just sit back and enjoy the ride. But their timing, it’s like a metronome. Nina can talk about a project as if she’s in a pitch meeting, and Jo Ann comes in on all the beats. It’s a performance, but it feels unrehearsed.”

As broadcast’s longest running sales content battery, Ross and Tassler offer clients familiarity; it also helps to be leading the business in total eyeballs and the 25-54 demographic. “Jo Ann and I have been working together like this for a long time, and there’s a lot to be said for that kind of longevity, especially when so many other networks are going out with new faces,” Tassler says. Indeed, for the first time in 21 years, there’s been turnover at the top of Fox’s sales effort; meanwhile, a pair of relative newcomers will introduce the 2011-12 programming slates at this week’s respective ABC and NBC events.

Buyers regard the 53-year-old Tassler, who has two children with husband Jerry Levine, a TV director and former actor, as the preeminent upfront presenter for giving clients insight into the factors that led to the creation of the final slate. She is also appreciated for her takes on how CBS stands to fare in head-to-head competition, a practice that has fallen out of favor at the other networks.

“Nina’s role in the upfront and with our advertisers cannot be understated,” Ross says. “She comes here for program development in March, and then we bring her out to sales meetings in Chicago and Detroit. Every year she knocks it out of the park.”

Tassler claims her own success in the partnership with Ross extends back to a childhood fascination with the tube, when as a girl in Washington Heights her nights frequently ended with the then-common local affiliate sign-off. “I always hated that moment, with the flag and the Star Spangled Banner,” Tassler recalls. “It meant that my day of TV was over, that it was done . . . and I’d have to wait for morning for it to come back on.”

Ross acknowledges there are few holes in a CBS schedule which may have no more than five hours of new programming this fall. “Let’s put it this way: We know how to put on hits,” she says. “The network is very stable. But that doesn’t mean my job is easy.” Moonves’ repeated push for double-digit CPM gains may saddle the sales team with extra burdens heading into the upfront, although Ross casts the demands as cheerleading: “I’m thrilled that he gets up there in front of investors and says what he does. There’s no pressure at all.”

And this year, at least, there won’t be, if the analysts are right. Wall Street sees CBS commanding CPM hikes of between 12 percent-13 percent, for a total upfront score of at least $3 billion. —Anthony Crupi