With the late-night ratings battle heating up, CBS' entertainment president on Monday took a few public swipes at NBC, the longtime leader in after-hours programming.

CBS executives are gloating that "The Late Show With David Letterman" has been closing in on NBC's "The Tonight Show With Conan O'Brien" since the new host took over the franchise in June. The rival networks have since been engaged in a PR war, with NBC choosing to emphasize O'Brien's strength among young viewers even as his overall viewership declines.

"Whatever ratings they get, they're going to declare victory, so it really doesn't matter what I say," Nina Tassler, who oversees CBS' entertainment programming, told reporters at the TV press tour in Pasadena.

"It seemed a little bit premature" when NBC crowned O'Brien the king of late night just after he took the reins from Jay Leno, she added.

"Tonight" has slipped to third place in the late-night sweepstakes, averaging 3.7 million total viewers so far this summer, according to Nielsen Media Research. That is slightly below "Late Show" and ABC's news program "Nightline," each averaging 3.8 million viewers. Under Leno, "Tonight" typically delivered more than 5 million viewers. However, NBC still has a significant advantage among young-adult viewers. "Tonight" has averaged a 1.5 rating / 6 share in adults ages 18 to 49, ahead of Letterman's 1.0 rating / 4 share.

Privately, CBS executives expect O'Brien's ratings to tumble further once Leno resurfaces in a new 10 p.m. talk show on NBC in the fall. CBS, meanwhile, is sticking with a strategy of airing expensive scripted dramas in that time slot, such as "CSI: Miami" and the new Julianna Margulies vehicle "The Good Wife." (CBS talent seems to be following the management playbook: At a panel for "Good Wife," Margulies suggested that NBC is scheduling too many nightly talk shows.)

"We feel pretty confident. Ten o'clock has been a great time period for us," Tassler said. "Ten o'clock is a great business and it's going to boost Dave as well."

Tassler drew laughter when asked to comment on the recent departure of NBC's Ben Silverman, the brash former agent and producer hired two years ago in what proved a mostly unsuccessful bid to overhaul that network's programming. "I'm really just a D-girl, so I wouldn't comment," Tassler said. The line was a reference to a 2007 Esquire article in which Silverman ridiculed rival programmers as "D-girls," a disparaging industry term used to describe low-level creative executives.

Margulies slaps Noth around

Julianna Margulies slapped Chris Noth three times for the scene in the pilot in which "The Good Wife" goes bad. In a good way.

The first time, she didn't hit him hard enough. The second time, the camera was off. The third time, she left a red welt on his face.

"Chris Noth is so great," she said at the press tour on Monday. "He's like, 'Oh, please, I've been hit so many times.' "

In the new CBS drama, which premieres Sept. 22, Margulies plays a wife and mother who reenters the workforce as an attorney after her husband (Noth) lands in jail following an embarrassing political corruption scandal. Co-created by husband-wife team Robert and Michelle King, the series was inspired by recent political scandals, Robert King said.

"It was right after a flurry of scandals where the politician's trajectory seemed pretty predictable," Robert King said. "Usually there was a resignation and then a period of time when they reflected, and then they tried to get back right in the spotlight. So what interested us more was the politician's wife's trajectory because it seemed much less certain, much more interesting, because how do you really remake your life when everybody seems to have an opinion about how you should remake your life?"

For her part, Margulies said she was interested in returning to TV as an attorney (she last played one on Fox's failed "Canterbury's Law") mostly because "The Good Wife" isn't really a legal show.

"This is a woman who's thought her life was going one way for many, many years and trusted that life and that world that she lived in," she said. "And then everything crumbles. So as an actor, I felt like, well, there's so many places to go."

Asked why she thinks powerful women are not prone to these types of sex scandals, Margulies, married with a baby, gave a practical answer. "Women do not have the time," she said. "Dear Lord, I mean, between the kids and the job and the cleaning and the cooking, we just don't have the time. Honestly, we're exhausted."

Emmy producer, host talk back

Since the Academy of Television Arts & Sciences announced last week that it intends to make the Sept. 20 Emmy Awards telecast more attractive to "mainstream viewers" by cutting down some of the time devoted to eight categories, including writing and directing, there has been an outcry among many network executives and TV scribes.

But the show's executive producer, Don Mischer, and host, Neil Patrick Harris, both said at a press conference Monday that there is a lot of "misinformation" about the program, which will air on CBS.

Executives with HBO, which has 18 nominations in the eight categories that have been proposed for trimming, complained last week about the telecast's changes, which they fear will diminish the overall contributions of cable networks in favor of broadcast television. Monday, 157 television writers and executive producers released a signed petition through the Writers Guild of America, requesting specifically that the academy retain the writing categories.

One of those show runners was "Medium" executive producer Glenn Gordon Caron, who appeared at a panel for his show and said the move seemed "short-sighted."

"This medium, this thing we do, where we gather every week and tell a story for an hour, is a written medium," he said. "It's acted, which is a great thing. It's directed, which is a great thing. It's costumed, which is a great thing. But it begins with a blank page. How can you have this whole procession of people picking up prizes and not talk about the people who are there when nothing exists, who start the whole thing?"

But Mischer said the writers need not worry. What the producers hope to do is to tape the presentation of those awards 45 minutes before the telecast begins, so that they can trim the fat -- that is, footage of winners walking on and off stage and cutaways to loved ones for reaction shots. By reducing the time it takes to give out those awards, the producers hope to add "entertaining" segments.

"The decisions were made also based on what in the research was the most interesting material to viewers," Mischer said. "We are in the situation where we are trying to put on the air -- and of course, all this will be on the air -- the content that is most appealing to viewers. We are trying to keep the Emmys alive as a major TV event.

"It may be in the long run that it drifts away from that into a niche event. That's something that's very possible. But for right now, we're going to try the best we can. And I think it's best for the whole industry, whether you're HBO or CBS or what genre you work in, for the Emmys to be seen by as many people as possible."

At her session earlier, Tassler also defended the plan, insisting the trims will be done "in a very respectful way.

"It will have no impact on the integrity of the program," she said. "This is about producing an exciting and entertaining program."


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