SOPHIE TURNER LAING has had a multi-dimensional career, with stints as an international distributor, buyer and programmer. Her current position gives her a vantage point on those sectors and more. She is CEO of the Endemol Shine Group, which pumped out 715 productions in 69 markets on 261 channels in more than 50 languages around the world in 2015.
Laing’s path to winning a 2016 Brandon Tartikoff Legacy Award was a little more circuitous than the award’s namesake, who famously began offering casting tips for his favorite network show at the age of 10.
“My mother thought TV wasn’t brilliant for you, and you would be better of reading a book than watching TV,” Turner Laing recalls. “So she stopped us from watching TV during the week, and we became obsessed with watching TV as soon as she left the house.”
After finishing school, Turner Laing took a secretarial job at the children’s charity Variety Club and then moved to Australia for two years. After returning to the U.K. in 1982, she landed another secretarial job in distribution at Henson International Television, where she says Jim Henson “had an enormous influence“ on her.
At Henson, she quickly picked up the complexities of the international TV business from her boss, Peter Orton, though she downplays her rise from being a secretary to sales director with a bit of down-to-earth humor. “The Muppet Show and Fraggle Rock were already global hits,” she quips. “If you are going to start selling something, you might as well start selling something that people really want to buy.”
In 1989, at the age of 28, she and Orton cofounded Hit Entertainment, which would grow into a major U.K. indie producer. Then in 1995, she made a major career shift from being a seller to a buyer of programs, first at Flextech Television and then at the BBC, where she was the controller of acquisitions.
That was followed by a lengthy stint at BSkyB, which she joined in 2003 running Sky Movies. By 2007, Turner Laing was the managing director of content for all of Sky’s entertainment and news channels, making her one of the world’s top buyers of U.S. movies and TV shows outside the U.S.
“Sophie is a brilliant listener, [and] not just one-on-one with colleagues,” says Tim Worner, CEO of Seven West Media, owner of the Seven network and other properties in Australia. “She is a world champion at listening to the market.… Combined with the undeniable feel she has for programs, [she] has a super track record.”
Part of that track record has been Turner Laing’s influence over the global TV business as a buyer and programmer. One example is the 2011 launch of Sky Atlantic, which became a hugely successful outlet for HBO and other U.S. cable network fare.
“These shows are often quite dark and not necessarily everyday network fare,” she says. Sky Atlantic very successfully overcame that problem by providing what she calls “a haven for those shows,” where they could be properly promoted and developed. Ultimately the concept was so successful that similar channels were launched by operators in a number of different markets.
In 2014, Turner Laing left Sky, planning to go into production. But she got a call from James Murdoch asking her to take charge of a new 50/50 joint venture between 21st Century Fox and Apollo Global Management called the Endemol Shine Group that would combine their global production units.
“I wasn’t planning on taking another corporate role, and certainly not one that spanned 30 countries with 120 different production companies,” she says. But as she looked into the opportunity, she couldn’t resist the chance to return to her international TV roots and run a company with more than 600 formats including MasterChef.
“It’s like working in an Aladdin’s cave of brands and creators,” she says. She embraced the daunting challenge of integrating dozens of companies owned by Endemol and Shine.
“I’m an enormous fan of jigsaw puzzles,” Turner Laing jokes. “I’m proud to say that with everyone’s support, we managed to integrate all of these companies without hardly missing a beat.”
The Muppets at the Oscars
Over the years, Turner Laing has also emerged has an example—rare, some would say—of a highly successful TV executive who is almost universally admired by her colleagues.
“The truth is [that] in this business you have a few friends, a lot of `do not care people’ and a couple of haters, [though] some have a lot,” says Böss Rüdiger, exec VP of group programming acquisitions at ProSiebenSat.1 in Germany. “She is different: I do not know one person—business or just in private —who is not loving or at least respecting her. She is amazing.”
Rüdiger recalls their first meeting, at the Academy Awards. Sitting with Turner Laing during the show, he was impressed by both her engaging personality and knowledge of movies and TV. “We had a blast” and “commented on the show like the old guys from The Muppets,” he says.
Those people skills have also helped Turner Laing, with another of her proudest accomplishments, managing to “stay married for 28 years,” she says.
Besides their U.K. digs, the couple has a home in France, where she loves to cook. But she admits to watching a lot of TV. “I literally eat and breathe this business because it’s so much fun,” she says. “And there has never been a better time to be in this business. I just love the variety from all the different countries and different genres.”