As a law student in Toronto, Jonathan Anschell (BA 1989 UC) decided he wanted to be a Hollywood lawyer, so he moved to Los Angeles, passed the California bar exam, and started climbing the showbiz legal ladder. But even the ambitious young Anschell could not have predicted that he would ascend, at the tender age of 36, to Executive Vice President and General Counsel for CBS Television.
Today, after more than a decade as the network’s top risk assessor, the affable Anschell is, according to The Hollywood Reporter, one of that city’s “most respected and well-liked legal executives”—no small feat when you spend your days directing litigation and resolving talent disputes and other creative issues. He spoke with UC Magazine editor Yvonne Palkowski about how he navigates Hollywood’s perilous legal waters.
Describe your typical work day.
No day is typical, and that’s a big part of what makes my job fun. But in one way or another, each day involves assessing risk and making judgment calls. On some days, that might involve analyzing a contract for the production or distribution of one of our television shows. On other days, it might involve a question of whether the content of a commercial, a joke on one of our comedies, or a visual image in one of our dramas is acceptable under our network standards. The goal each day is to help deliver compelling content to the CBS audience, while staying within the bounds of our legal obligations and good taste.
How would you describe the interaction between the creative and legal teams behind a television show? How does CBS balance creative integrity with legal considerations?
When we get it right, the relationship between the creative and legal teams on a show works as a partnership. A big objective throughout my department is to assure the creative teams that our lawyers are not here to say no to creative ideas. Instead, our goal is to be able to say yes whenever possible, even if that means making a suggestion to keep the content within legal bounds or taking a slightly different approach to an idea than the creative team might have first envisioned. In almost every instance, there should not be much tension between creative integrity and legal considerations. If the teams are communicating with each other throughout the creative process, there’s usually a way to collaborate on a solution that delivers on the creative vision without causing heartburn for the lawyers.
What is the biggest misconception about what you do?
The biggest misconception I’ve heard about my job came when an otherwise very well-informed friend asked me if I get to watch television all day at the office. The reality is that much of the work that goes on in my department is quite similar to legal work for any other business, although some of the issues we handle are unique to our industry.
What do you enjoy most about your job, and what is your biggest challenge?
What I enjoy the most are the problem-solving aspects of my job – helping our creative executives navigate around legal issues to realize their vision for a project. The biggest challenge I face is one that’s facing the entertainment industry more broadly – how to adapt to the new ways people are consuming entertainment content, without jeopardizing any of the company’s existing business models. That challenge also is a fun aspect of the job. With the growth of new technologies for people to watch their favorite shows, this is a very exciting time to be working in the television business.
How has the rise of on-demand Internet streaming services like Netflix changed your industry, from a legal perspective?
Netflix and its peers have presented a number of challenges and opportunities. From a legal perspective, one of those challenges has been applying contracts that were written a long time ago – for some of our classic TV shows – to a distribution model and technological environment that didn’t exist when those shows were made and the contracts were concluded. But overall, the growth of streaming services like Netflix has been a good thing for the industry and for viewers. People are watching more content than ever before, without diverting viewership away from the networks.
What kinds of legal issues are created by reality television?
Anytime you put real people into new locations and situations that have not been scripted in advance, there’s an element of risk that lawyers need to identify and manage. Our primary mission is to keep the participants safe, no matter how remote the location or how grueling the competition. Beyond safety, the issues that come up in reality television include the fairness of competitions that the participants face, the accuracy of the way that they’re portrayed, and taste considerations in the broadcast of the language they might use or the way that they interact with each other. On every reality show, we try to help deliver an engaging and realistic program to the viewer, while staying within the bounds of safety and responsibility to the viewing audience.
What’s your favourite television show and why?
As a loyal CBS viewer and a lawyer, I vote for The Good Wife. That show has great characters and presents legal issues and current events in a way that’s intelligent and groundbreaking, while fitting the whole package into an hour of broadcast TV each week. If I were choosing among competing shows, it would be Mad Men, for its brilliant writing, nuanced characters, and incredibly engaging depiction of life in the advertising business in 1960s New York.
What are some of your fond memories from UC?
I have many. Life at Ferguson House in Whitney Hall, the UC Debating Society, and the end-of-term parties at Reznikoff’s all were great high points.