Staff Reporter

When Anne Nelson first started working at CBS, network television didn't even exist in 1945, CBS was a radio network. Fifty-four years later, Nelson is still with the company, its longest-tenured employee on the West Coast and the second longest-tenured employee at the entire network. Last month, she was promoted to vice president of business affairs.

Nelson, who joined CBS at $29 a week, now oversees contract negotiations on all movies and miniseries. In this capacity, she negotiates financial deals with producers and studios that are then finalized by the legal department.

Nelson's first job at CBS was producing promotional spots for humorist Robert Benchley. She went on to produce radio specials. In 1949, she moved to the network's business department, where she has been negotiating deals with producers and studios.

Among the series whose contracts she negotiated were "The Red Skelton Show," "Hawaii Five-O," "Rawhide," "Perry Mason," and "The Wild Wild West." She also negotiated the original deal for "I Love Lucy."

An amateur photographer, Nelson has a photograph of CBS patriarch William S. Paley on her wall. She shot the photo in his office in New York, six months before he died. Nelson still calls her late boss, "Mr. Paley," but had little regard for Paley's now-departed successor, Laurence Tisch. She is enthusiastic about the arrival of Mel Karmazin, CBS Corp.'s new boss, who is credited with sending the company's stock soaring.

Question: You have been at CBS for 54 years. What is your key to survival?

Answer: Being honorable and doing a good job. I don't play politics. I don't know how. My word is good, and it's been good for 54 years. It will be for the next 54.

Q: CBS was the third-place radio network when you started. What turned it around?

A: Mr. Paley bought all that talent in 1948 with the aid of Lew Wasserman. He got Jack Benny, Amos and Andy, George Burns and Gracie Allen, later Red Skelton. Mr. Paley figured out a very beneficial situation for them to move from NBC.

Q: What made Paley so successful?

A: He was very smart. He had great charisma. I never saw those blowups they said he had. I never got hit by them. He was very smart in picking Frank Stanton (as president of CBS), who was like a computer brain. Mr. Paley could be the showman and Stanton was the businessman.

Q: Tisch ran the company into the ground?

A: He took the money and ran. I felt he was not good for the company. I love this company. To see CBS stripped of its assets did not make a lot of us happy. Mr. Karmazin is putting it back in a different way. When Tisch made (a promotional deal) with Kmart, I nearly died. This was the Tiffany network, not the Kmart network.

Q: What is Mel Karmazin like?

A: Never met him. But he has increased the energy because of all the additions of communications companies, like King World and Infinity and America Online. He is diversifying, but not calling it that. Tisch would not diversify.

Q: What was Tisch's biggest mistake?

A: Selling CBS Records to Sony.

Q: How has the business changed since the days of Paley?

A: The first thing is the monumental dollars. A two-hour movie costs $2.8 million or more. I think "Gunsmoke" originally cost under $500,000. Up until the '70s, $7,500 was the fee for a guest star. That's all you paid. No fooling around about it. Now (salaries) are all over the lot.

Q: How have people in television changed in the 54 years you've been at CBS?

A: A loss of integrity. Even with a signed contract, people will renege on you. That never would have happened 30 years ago, even with people with bad reputations. If they agreed, they would do it. We just a signed contract with a very big star who suddenly didn't want to do it when we were in pre-production. He wanted to do the part of a 30-year-old and the man is not a 30-year-old. Suddenly, the day before the pilot, people will say, "Oh, I just couldn't do that." Well, why didn't they say that before they took the job?

Q: Describe your job.

A: I handle contract negotiations for the entertainment division. Program people send me information about certain creative elements they want, and I handle the contract negotiations for life-rights, a book, script. Eventually, if it goes to film, I'll handle the license fee (the price the network pays a producer for the project) and I'll take care of the payments.

Q: How has this process changed over the last 50 years?

A: It's changed considerably. You would deal before with a principal or an agent or an attorney. Their word was good, the deal was set, and sometimes you never sent the paper and it was never a problem. Now, you deal with an agent, and you think you have the deal set. Suddenly you get an attorney getting into the act saying, "Oh no, that is not what the agent meant." Then you have some paralegal who knows nothing about it sending you a letter saying, "Oh no, it shouldn't be this way." You have all these chefs in the pot. I think this is one of the things that's caused an escalation in prices. They all have to do their jobs.

Q: Personal managers have also jumped into the pot, and they want to be executive producers. What do you think of this development?

A: In most cases, it is one more add-on. They are not producers. It's a matter of honesty. They are asking for something just because they have clout. "I'll pull my client," they'll say. "He'll get sick." That is not a nice way to do business. In the old days, Raymond Burr had a manager who did pretty well by himself. I am not sure that Raymond did as well as the manager.

Q: Burr died broke. You see millions of dollars coming across your desk, so why do so many actors die broke?

A: I have one theory: They don't pay enough attention. I've seen powers of attorney misused. You can't give someone a general power of attorney. They can do anything they want to, and they can do it legally.

Q: This is a business that is not kind to women. Why?

A: It hasn't been unkind to me, although I have not advanced the way I should have until now. In the early days before 1970, I was in the boys' club. I was one of them. I know there will be a lot of women who will hate me for saying this, but if you conduct yourself in a ladylike manner, and you are honorable and responsible, there is no reason why you shouldn't advance. You don't have to burn your bra and say to a guy, "Don't you dare open a door for me." The women's movement made men very wary. I think, for me, it pushed things back. I was one of the guys.

Q: If you showed up at CBS today, could you get your job?

A: I couldn't. You have to be a lawyer, and they like MBAs as well. We don't do our contracts anymore, the law department does. We send an internal memo to the law department and they put the contract together.

Q: How tough was the deal for "I Love Lucy?"

A: Easy. She wanted to do that show. If it hadn't been for Lucy harassing Mr. Paley, Desi would have never gotten that part. She stayed firm. She wanted to keep him off the road. Lucy single-handedly made Desi the husband of that show. The original pilot cost $19,000.

Q: Who was the toughest person you ever had to deal with?

A: Probably Dick St. John on behalf of James Arness (during a renegotiation of the "Gunsmoke" star's salary for the 1965-66 season). Arness was getting $275,000 and it jumped to $800,000.

Q: Today, stars of a hot TV series get as much as $1 million an episode. What were salaries like 30 years ago?

A: Clint Eastwood got $750 a show for "Rawhide."

Q: At what point is a star's salary so high that you step in and say, no way?

A: I recently had one where we agreed to pay less than two-thirds of a million-dollar proposal.

Q: What's the ballpark figure for a movie-of-the-week star?

A: There is no ballpark figure. In the old days it was $7,500. There is no ballpark. It depends on the project and who else is in it and who is the producer. Certainly not $2 million. For a two-hour movie, not $1 million. A miniseries, possibly $2 million.

Q: At what point do you see some of these stars becoming unrealistic about their financial demands?

A: As soon as they have a hit for a year or so. It gets them out of reality. It gets them believing their own press. All the people that want to make money off of them keep telling them they are more valuable. Everybody is pushing.

Q: You have been here 54 years. Ever think about retirement?

A: Oh heavens no. My father was still working at 93 when he died. He was the editor of Pacific Oil World, a trade journal. My father said on his deathbed, "Don't retire. People die when they retire."

Q: What is a typical work day for you?

A: I get up at 6:30 a.m. and I do things around the house. I take my dog for a half-hour walk and then I get in around 10, and I work until 7 or 8 p.m. I'll have a business dinner. If I am lucky, I'll play tennis with somebody. I get home at 11 p.m. and go to bed around 1 a.m.

Anne Nelson

Title: Vice President, Business Affairs

Organization: CBS Entertainment

Born: San Francisco (would not reveal date)

Education: B.A. journalism, University of California at Berkeley

Career Turning Point: Becoming a vice president

Hobbies: Ballooning, wind surfing, tap dancing, photography, travel

Most Admired Person: Aunt Hazel, a high school chemistry teacher who learned to fly at the age of 60

Personal: Widow, three children, three grandchildren

For reprint and licensing requests for this article, CLICK HERE.