“Television was my way to be entertained and to be given a glimpse into the world at large.”
Nancy Tellem, Executive Chairperson at Eko; excerpted from an interview with the National Museum of American History, December 10, 2018. Edited for clarity by the National Museum of American History, March 2019.
“My mother was my role model.”
My parents were Holocaust survivors. My mother was one of the first women to attend medical school at the University of Vienna in the 1930s and was one of the few female anesthesiologists to practice in the U.S. at that time. As a working mom, and one who was always curious about the world around her, my mother was my role model and continues to be today. It was difficult for her to balance both family and work, but she did so successfully and forged my way, teaching me the importance of pursuing one’s professional dreams and maintaining your independence as a woman while having a loving family.
I grew up in Danville, California, and while Danville is now a part of the larger Bay Area, when I grew up there it was a sleepy farm town. We were the only immigrant family in this small town and one of only two Jewish families. Television was my way to be entertained and to be given a glimpse into the world at large. I was enthralled with it. My parents were quite strict about when I could watch television. They would limit the time to watch family programs such as The Ed Sullivan Show, the Walt Disney hour on Sundays and, of course, the news. Because of this proscription, television became my obsession, and I spent a good part of my childhood negotiating with my parents for more television time… and yes, they finally relented.
“I needed to be a part of all of this.”
I attended Berkeley in the ‘70s and immersed myself in my political science studies and numerous activities on campus. It was an amazing time: People’s Park, the end of the Vietnam War, and of course, Watergate. I was determined to go to Washington, D.C., and found an internship with Congressman Ron Dellums. It was a magical time to be in Washington, as the Watergate Hearings were in full swing. The halls of Congress were flooded by cameras, lights, and news reporters—I needed to be a part of all of this. Every day I would sneak out of the office with a reporter’s pad and pretended to be a part of the press corps. I watched it all close up and came away determined that this was my purpose in life.
Having no acting or writing skills, but loving the news and inspired by television anchors Walter Cronkite, Chet Huntley, and David Brinkley, and reporters such as Carl Stern (who reported on the Supreme Court), I decided that my way into the business was to go to law school. I thought (wrongly) that it could be an amazing way of combining my love of journalism, law, and entertainment. In law school, I discovered that there were no entertainment classes and knew I needed to do something to qualify me for an entertainment law position. So, I, along with a couple of other law students, started an Entertainment Law Journal which is still published today. Unfortunately, my involvement with the journal had little value to my prospective employers.
“I was determined to devote all of my time to finding a job in entertainment.”
When I graduated from law school, it was impossible to get a job at an entertainment law firm. I ended up at a large law firm in Los Angeles and was assigned to the probate litigation department. Litigation was bad enough, but probate litigation was even worse. It seemed that there was no way I could capitalize on this experience to transition into an entertainment job. I was then assigned to the Howard Hughes probate case, which was my first introduction to Hollywood in the early years and Hughes’s fascinating role as a producer and a paramour to the starlets at that time.
However, this job did not get me any closer to a true entertainment job. After practicing six years as a litigator and getting closer to becoming a partner at the law firm, I was determined to devote all of my time to finding a job in entertainment. At every turn, I was told that I was “over-qualified” or “under-qualified,” having no real entertainment experience. I was caught in a catch-22—unless someone gave me a shot, I couldn’t break the impasse. After two years of rejections, I finally got my break: Columbia Television was looking for a litigator to oversee a show called Lie Detector with F. Lee Bailey and I was hired! There was no stopping me now.
“In my mind, I had finally hit the big leagues.”
I remember my first day at work: driving onto a real studio lot, saying hello to the security guard and walking to my office. I was so thrilled to have a real entertainment job, to be a part of the studio community. In my mind, I had finally hit the big leagues. During lunch, I wandered around the studio, watching films being shot, actors waiting for their call, the cameras, the backlots. It felt like a dream. I finally found a bench to eat my sandwich and starting talking to the guy who sat next to me. Forgetting completely where I was, the guy looked familiar and I thought I knew him. As was my way, I started a conversation, all the while trying to place where I had met him. I asked him mundane questions and he was quite courteous to answer each one of them, until I realized I was sitting next to Bill Murray.
On being a part of the turnaround at CBS
After my stint at Lorimar and Warner Bros. I had the opportunity to go to CBS and was offered a position that encompassed both business and creative. This was the transition that I was waiting for. While I knew the studio business well, to run a network and the in-house studio arm was something I always dreamed of. Coming to CBS at that time wasn’t easy. We were in last place in the ratings, and it was tough convincing creators to come to a network that couldn’t prove that the shows would generate real syndication value. That made the challenge fun.
It started with Everybody Loves Raymond and the slow but steady build of audience that made it our first hit. Having that hit helped every other show on the network and we could feel that CBS was now considered by agents and creators as a viable place to do business. Then came Survivor. It was a show that everyone at the network was intrigued by, but concerned about the risk. The advertisers ran for the hills until it became the phenomenon that it was. Then CSI was a lowly rated show on Friday night until we moved it to Thursday. It was a tough but unbelievably exciting five years.
Finding the intersection of television and technology: Microsoft and Xbox
While at CBS and during the early days of the internet, I oversaw CBS.com and our mobile initiative. That’s when I realized how technology could impact as well as disrupt our business. I was curious about this new technology and wanted now to focus my work on the relationship between content creation, audience immersion, and technology. My curiosity and passion only grew, and I concluded that I would have to leave the traditional media space to venture into the tech space.
The timing couldn’t have been more perfect when I was introduced to the head of Xbox who wanted to expand the audience who used Xbox 360 to gamers and non-gamers alike. They believed that with the advent of the new Xbox One, offering entertainment content that integrated some of the gaming features of the console would be the ideal strategy for expanding their customer base. I loved the entrepreneurial space, and the opportunity to create essentially a startup within the structure of Microsoft was an offer too good to refuse.
I started the studio from scratch and hired amazing executives. The experience was new and exhilarating. Our development team was one of the best in the business, and the film and television creators were excited to have another place to produce great content. There was so much to learn in building a studio within a company of engineers. We needed to fully understand the features of gaming, the iteration that goes into building a game, and the kind of engagement and immersion the gamers experienced in playing the game. All of these were considerations in building our development slate with series such as Man in the High Castle, Humans, BoJack Horseman, as well as documentaries and unscripted projects.
Unfortunately, the release of Xbox One was not well received and the strategy of expanding into entertainment was halted. They needed to hold on to the gamers for gaming purposes and chose to close down the studio. It was a bittersweet experience for me. I had never been “fired” from a job and was determined to keep the studio going, trying to sell it to another buyer. As they say, you learn more from failure than success, and it made me even more curious and passionate about the next phase of my career—running Interlude, aka Eko, an interactive media startup based in Tel Aviv and New York.
“The audience is controlling what content they see and when.”
Technology has always played an important part of the television industry. From radio, to black-and-white television, to color TV, to cable and satellite distribution, to DVRs, to digital production and editing and, of course, to the streaming of content. Change appears to be slow, but once it hits its inception point, it happens on an exponential rate. This is what we are experiencing now in television. At one time, the television networks and film studios controlled what we saw, how we saw it, and when we saw it. Everything we previously assumed is now put on its head, and the audience is controlling what content they see and when.
I am now the executive chairperson of Eko, a media network that reimagines storytelling by using proprietary technology to create interactive stories and experiences. I have spent the last five years working at the startup, helping with strategy and applying all that I have learned and experienced in traditional media to this new and exciting medium. I am now working with people half my age who view content, distribution, and its connection to their audience in a new and exciting way. Eko‘s technology is superior to all others, and the vision of its founder, as well as its talented executives, has allowed me to grow and transition into this new world of media where technology plays a dominant role. We have created groundbreaking content allowing the audience to control the narrative as well as connecting in a significant way to e-commerce. We are looking to change the advertising model and I love being part of this new chapter of the media business.
On I Love Lucy and Sandy Koufax’s glove
I was fortunate to meet with the creators of I Love Lucy when I first came to CBS. They gave me a glimpse of what it was like creating and producing the seminal show. With only two writers, they wrote and produced hundreds of episodes, and a series that influenced the comedy of television series for generations. There was no social media or digital technology. Film was used, stored and preserved in metal canisters. The sound of opening these canisters, putting the film on the projector, hearing the film run through the projector and seeing the images, sounds, and experiences that the story could unfold. It was a time that represented the beginnings and purity of the storytelling process. It represents how far the creative process has advanced in such a short period of time, good and bad.
Sandy Koufax was the left-handed pitcher for the Brooklyn/Los Angeles Dodgers in the 1950s and 1960s. The record-setting ball player brought a different kind of attention to the game when he choose to celebrate the significant Jewish holiday, Yom Kippur, rather than pitch in game 1 of the 1965 World Series.
The baseball mitt, on the other hand, represents to me a multitude of emotions. It highlights the wonderful history of the game, how it tracked the recent history of our country, how the game mirrored the political and civil events of the day, and how the game brought together our diverse community. It also brings to mind the baseball greats such as Jackie Robinson who fought racism and prejudice to play the game, and Hank Greenberg and Sandy Koufax who were heroes to the Jewish people, not only for their baseball talent, but for refusing to play on the most holy day in the Jewish religion, Yom Kippur.