Monty Brinton, CBS
CBS Entertainment President Nina Tassler

PASADENA, Calif. — CBS isn't exactly champing at the bit to compete against Jay Leno in prime time. Well, OK, CBS is pretty much champing at the bit to compete against Jay Leno's Monday-Friday, 9-10 p.m. talk show on NBC.

And the CBS staff is pretty darn excited about having David Letterman compete against Leno's "Tonight Show" successor, Conan O'Brien. After the first couple of months of that matchup, Letterman is beating O'Brien by a wide margin in total viewers. And he's pulled almost even in the competition for the younger demographics advertisers crave.

"We see this as a great opportunity. It's a sea-change in our business," CBS Entertainment President Nina Tassler said of NBC's decision to hand five hours of prime time over to Leno.

Not that she expects that anybody at NBC will ever admit that move was a mistake, even if the ratings are terrible.

"Well, first of all, whatever numbers, whatever ratings they get, they're going to declare a victory anyway. So it really doesn't matter," she said, eliciting laughter from the critics gathered to toss questions at her.

Not that she has any desire to handicap Leno's chances.

"No. I have no desire to do that," she said.

CBS's opportunity comes because it has been very successful with its weeknight, 9-10 p.m., MST dramas. "CSI: Miami," "CSI: NY" and "Numb3rs" win their time slots on Mondays, Wednesdays and Friday, respectively. "The Mentalist" — last season's biggest new show — has moved to 9 p.m. Thursdays. And the very-promising new show "The Good Wife" debuts at 9 p.m. Tuesdays in the fall.

"(Nine) o'clock has been a great business for us," Tassler said. "Our shows do very well."

She is particularly excited about "The Mentalist's" future.

"It generates billions of dollars for us in revenue, between foreign sales, syndication," she said. "(Nine) o'clock is a great business, and it's only going to boost Dave as well."

Leno could well surprise everyone, but he's not expected to come close to beating CBS's dramas in the ratings. NBC's decision was prompted by the fact that it can produce five "Jay Leno Shows" for what it would cost to produce one hourlong drama.

But that last hour of prime time has traditionally had a big influence on local late-night news ratings. Which isn't good news for NBC stations across the country.

And that last hour of prime time has carried over to the post-news programming. Which isn't good news for O'Brien.

And Letterman is clearly energized.

"He's at the top of his game," Tassler said. "He's very excited."

And, frankly, while the late-night numbers have yet to completely settle, NBC looks ridiculous for issuing that press release declaring Conan the new "King of Late Night" after his first week on "The Tonight Show." A press release that caught the folks at CBS by surprise.

"We said, 'Really? Really?' It seemed premature," Tassler said. "But, as I say, whatever numbers come in — whatever the ratings are — I think they'll be happy to declare victory again."

OH, SNAP! Back when Ben Silverman was a Hot Young TV Executive hired to run NBC Entertainment — before he proved he was incapable of the task — he egomaniacally dissed his rivals in an interview with Esquire magazine.

"The industry hasn't seen an executive like me in a long time," Silverman said. "Traditionally, development executives rise through a specific subsection of the TV business — prime time, network scripted programming. They're basically D-girls."

"D-girls" is derogatory industry slang for young executives with little or no power.

So, when Tassler was asked if she had any reaction to Silverman's recent exit from NBC after two incredibly unsuccessful years, she demurred. For the most part.

"Well, you know, I'm really just a D-girl. So I wouldn't comment on that," she said.

She got applause from the critics for that line. And we never applaud for anything.

NOT BRIGHT: The critics questioning Tassler didn't exactly start out strong. The first question was addressed to "Nancy," not Nina.

(CBS Entertainment Group President Nancy Tellem was Nina Tassler's predecessor as president of CBS Entertainment, but, c'mon. Several of us jokingly called for the CBS page to take the microphone away from our colleague.)

And two questions later, another of our colleagues asked Tassler if the network had announced what daytime show was being canceled to make way for the newly announced revival of "Let's Make a Deal."

Um, yes. CBS announced more than four months ago that "Guiding Light" would be leaving<.

It was not a shining moment for the Television Critics Association.

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