Brad Bessey, a 20-year TV veteran, has a confession. Given his current position, it’s one he admits could be a career-breaker: He never watched an episode of 30Rock until this year. “I discovered it late in life, and I’ve been watching all the seasons back to back,” he says. “And it’s great—no wonder it wins Emmys.”
Bessey, 49, has recently stepped into his own Liz Lemon-esque role, as the executive producer of CBS’ new live daytime hour The Talk, which bows Oct. 18.
Becoming a showrunner was an unlikely career for Bessey. He grew up in Lindsay, Calif., with four brothers; his father was a C.P.A. and the family grew oranges. As a teen, Bessey was involved with the Future Farmers of America and planned to be an agriculture lobbyist after graduation. He began studying agriculture at California Polytechnic State University, San Luis Obispo, in 1979, and only became interested in entertainment after spending a summer as a Universal Studios tour guide. It was enough to convince Bessey to move to Hollywood, though, and he transferred to California State University, Northridge after his sophomore year and changed his major to communications.
Bessey took an internship at the entertainment publicity firm Freeman & Sutton, turning heads with a clever pitch for a stress test that got the client press from CNNand USA Today. “When reporters would call, the [firm] would say, ‘Well, Brad’s in class.’ So they decided just to hire me,” Bessey says.
Years into his publicist job, frustrated with the low salary, he lunched with a friend who was hiring a talent executive for Win, Lose or Draw who realized Bessey’s skill with celebrities made him a perfect fit. When he left Freeman & Sutton, some of his clients followed him. For four years, he ran his own publicity shop while helping launch projects, such as The Montel Williams Show, as a talent executive. He finally left PR in 1993, when he went to work in production full-time on John & Leeza.
But it was at Entertainment Tonight where Bessey earned his producing stripes, joining in 1995 as coordinating producer, then becoming a supervising and senior producer before being named co-executive producer in 2005, a position he held until August 2010. And with the frantic pace of breaking celebrity news six days a week, 52 weeks a year, Bessey didn’t even notice the length of his tenure. “I stayed there for 15 years because it went by in the blink of an eye,” he says.
And he’ll be close to his roots, literally and figuratively, in his new role—The Talk shoots on CBS’ Radford Lot, just a few feet from the ET set. “Every aspect of this is informed by a decade-and-ahalf at Entertainment Tonight,” Bessey says. “Everything I know about television, I’ve had to call upon in this job.”
A fan of puzzles, Bessey brings an analytical eye to his TV shows. “He is a great negotiator and problem solver,” says Linda Bell Blue, executive producer of Entertainment Tonight and a close friend. “Brad has the experience to produce the best show possible, and when things don’t go exactly the way he planned, to recover from it. That’s the real talent.”
Helming The Talk, whose six female hosts—Julie Chen, Sara Gilbert, Sharon Osbourne, Holly Robinson Peete, Leah Remini and Marissa Jaret Winokur— will address the issues of the day from the perspective of motherhood, was a natural progression for Bessey, himself the parent of a young son. “Becoming a father two and a half years ago changed my entire perspective on life,” he says.
And he works to keep those priorities straight, even through the timeconsuming schedule of launching a show, squeezing in family time whenever possible. In Bessey’s office now, along with the layout of the show’s first month and clippings from producers, is a toy train track with Thomas the Tank Engine, for when his son stops by to visit. For Bessey, it’s a daily reminder of the show’s focus on parenting. “If I’m doing this show and not being a good father and connecting with my family, then I don’t know why I’m doing it.”
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