Over the course of her career, Louise Henry Bryson has never shied away from a challenging situation.
Bryson, currently president of distribution and affiliate business development at Lifetime Entertainment Services and executive vice president and general manager of Lifetime Movie Network, spent time working on the ill-fated Olympic Triplecast pay-per-view proposition for the 1992 Summer Games from Barcelona, Spain, when she was a vice president at NBC.
“It didn’t work out financially,” she says, with the kind of unaffected, folksy voice you would expect from someone raised in Spokane, Wash., and northern Idaho. “We worked our hearts out for two years, but it was an idea before its time. The interesting thing is, you learn from all these experiences, and if you just keep working along, things eventually work out.”
In part due to her involvement with the Triplecast, Bryson went on to a string of positions at other well-known networks. She opened the West Coast office for Court TV in 1993, and was instrumental in the launch of FX and then FXM: Movies as senior vice president of affiliate sales and marketing at FX Networks Inc. in the mid-1990s. That led her to Lifetime in 1999.
Judging by her record, Bryson shouldn’t even be at Lifetime now. “I’ve never stayed at a job more than three years,” she says. In fact, many a woman with a husband like hers wouldn’t bother to work at all. She has been married for 30 years to John Bryson, chairman and CEO of the California energy company Edison International, and he has been a director of the board of The Walt Disney Co. — one of Lifetime’s corporate parents — since 2000.
Bryson tends to stay a few years at a job, take a few years off, then find another fascinating role. That pattern has been conducive her other passion: raising four daughters, the youngest of which is just about ready for college. Not that Bryson’s spent her time off baking cookies.
“The last [break] lasted about three years, and during that time I chaired the public television station [KCET-TV] in Los Angeles,” she says. “It was a different kind of activity that offered me a lot of flexibility.”
She has been at Lifetime so long “because of the people here. And I really think Lifetime brings things to the viewer that are important,” she says, referring to the network’s pro-social agenda.
Betty Cohen, president and CEO of Lifetime Entertainment Services, remembers a conversation she had with Bryson, who only held the carriage role at the time, when Cohen joined the company about a year ago.
“She said, 'Obviously I still want to do distribution, but I’d like a new challenge,’” Cohen recalls. “I wanted to laugh, because I can’t think of anything more challenging than distribution.”
Cohen gave her the additional LMN title because “the critical growth factor for Lifetime Movie Network is growing distribution. Who better to run its swat team than Louise? She’s improved so many of our deals, and still has some tough roads ahead,” says Cohen.
To Bryson, the secret to being a good negotiator is “developing trust. Really, that’s the most important thing, at least for me. If you can develop that, from the start, you have a better opportunity to come to a good ending.”
“Trust” is a word that also comes up when Disney Media Networks co-chair and president of Disney ABC-Television Group Anne Sweeney describes Bryson.
“Louise has the kind of integrity that inspires trust, whether you’re on her team or sitting on the other side of the negotiating table,” she says. Sweeney saw Bryson’s work up close and personal during the time she reigned as chairman and CEO of FX Networks.
“Louise has the ability to handle immediate challenges without ever losing sight of the bigger picture. It’s one of the reasons she’s so great at what she does and has been able to craft so many deals that have had a positive impact on our industry,” Sweeney says.
She’s currently involved in an imbroglio that could have a deleterious impact on Lifetime. In recent weeks, Bryson has been in the middle of the high-profile struggle with EchoStar Communications Corp.’s Dish Network. It certainly hasn’t been for the faint of heart as Lifetime and LMN were yanked from Dish’s lineup, which reaches some 12 million homes, on Jan. 1. That dispute, at press time, continued to rage on.
In both her personal and professional lives, Bryson has been surrounded by a halo of important women throughout life: her daughters; two sisters; a trio of CEOs that include Cohen, Sweeney and former Lifetime leader Carole Black, as well as her role model, her aunt Margaret.
“My mother died when I was 16,” Bryson explains. “My aunt was always a great inspiration to me. She had a wonderful [medical] practice in San Francisco, and loaned me the money to get my masters degree at Stanford [University]. We were great friends.”
As it turned out, she earned that certificate, and found that man. But a few years of teaching led her to public broadcasting, where she won a string of awards as a writer and producer of documentaries. Eventually, she entered cable by way of John Goddard, president of Viacom Cable at the time, who put her in a management training program. She had wanted to go into broadcasting, “but I went where I was needed. I learned it’s good to go where you’re needed.”
Indeed, when advising young women about their careers, Bryson always suggests they try to be flexible. “There’s no straight line to the top.”