Deborah Blackwell has accomplished much in an industry that she had little exposure to as a child growing up in Bethesda, Md. “I was a bookish kid who wasn't allowed to watch TV on school nights,” she says.
A self-described voracious reader, she was an English major at Brown University, where she thought of being a writer. “But writing is very solitary work and I love being part of a team. I think being a creative executive suits me better.”
What has suited her fine has been a trailblazing career for more than two decades across the broadcast and cable television industries, one that currently has her leading SoapNet as senior vice president and general manager. It was her interest in storytelling and communicating that led her to take a job at NBC in 1979, after earning her master's at Harvard University. “When I was in business school, I thought about what I could be passionate about,” said Blackwell. “I came up with the idea of working in television as a field that was exciting and as a way to communicate with and have an impact on the world.”
During her two years at NBC, Blackwell quickly rose within the company's ranks, eventually becoming a network unit manager — one of the few women at the time to serve in that capacity. Blackwell oversaw the production and business aspects of several top NBC shows, including Saturday Night Live and the Peacock's Super Bowl telecasts.
“At the time there were probably those at the network who didn't think women should be traveling with crews or handling a lot of money as I did, so I was fortunate to be given the chance to do it,” says Blackwell. “I learned production — it was a wonderful opportunity to get hands-on experience on how television shows were created.”
Blackwell may have cut her creative teeth in broadcast — and enhanced those talents in the 1990s during a six-year stint heading the telemovie and miniseries packaging department at the William Morris Agency — but her managerial skills were honed on the cable side. After her tenure at NBC, she served on a team in 1981 that helped create the Entertainment Channel, now known as A&E Network, which is owned by ABC and Hearst Corp.
While Blackwell later served as senior vice president of Hearst, it was her experience at the Entertainment Channel — as well as with a defunct Internet startup — that taught her the importance of developing a strong brand identity through quality and exclusive programming, lessons that are applicable at SoapNet.
“At the Entertainment Channel, we were at the time the sole distributor of British Broadcasting Corp. product in the U.S., but we were still challenged with creating an identity at the channel,” says Blackwell. “At SoapNet, we're so fortunate to have a niche that can be expressed with one word: soap. You say it, and everybody knows what it is. And our viewers frequently describe themselves as already being addicted to the programming.”
The zeal of genre devotees is one of the things that attracted her to the network in 2001. “SoapNet viewers are really passionate. It was a clear concept, and we were leveraging the established brands of [ABC soaps] All My Children, One Life To Live and General Hospital. I saw a tremendous inherent strength in the concept and building on all the loyalty viewers felt to those shows.” SoapNet last March added NBC's Days Of Our Lives (in a deal with Sony Pictures Television) to its lineup. The network also boasts a number of original shows, including SoapCenter (think SportsCenter for sudser fans), Soap Talk and Soapography (the net's Biography series).
Coming up: a February marathon of performances from All My Children star Susan Lucci as part of its celebration of that series' 35th anniversary; and the second season of reality show, I Wanna Be a Soap Star, on which contestants will vie for a role on AMC. Last year, I Wanna Be averaged 1 million 18-to-49-year-old female viewers during its initial eight-week run, according to network executives. SoapNet has also provided Blackwell with the opportunity to work with Disney-ABC TV Group president Ann Sweeney, whom Blackwell lists as one of her mentors, along with another former boss Hearst Entertainment president Judy Polone.
“Anne Sweeney gave me the opportunity at SoapNet. I didn't have a background in daytime,” Blackwell says. “But Anne gave me the shot to head up SoapNet and is an incredibly inspiring and supportive boss. And it's been a thrill watching her ascend to her new position.”
Looking ahead, Blackwell says she wants to remain active in cable, which she believes is the future of television. “For me the cable business is more exciting, more of a growth business,” she says. “I feel the career innovations are coming out of the cable business, and its exciting for me seeing the cable operators venturing into new territories with new technologies going forward and I'm excited to be a part of that.”
The question is whether she will remain part of SoapNet. Blackwell's is one of several names that keeps cropping up in reports about who might be tapped to run Lifetime Network, owned by Disney and Hearst. Lifetime Entertainment Services president Carole Black is set to leave her post at the end of March. Sweeney and Hearst Corp. director John Conomikes are leading the search to find Black's successor. At the Television Critics Association tour earlier this month, Blackwell declined comment — and wouldn't even say if she had been contacted about the position.
“I'm really happy at SoapNet and I really love what I'm doing here,” said Blackwell, who has discussed a spin-off down the road that could accommodate the other five network daytime soaps as its core programming.