NAME: Sarah Gitchell
TITLE: SVP, Deputy General Counsel and Chief Counsel, Content Acquisition
COMPANY: Comcast Cable
CAREER HIGHLIGHTS: Has counseled Comcast on hundreds of programming deals since joining in 2005, from multibillion-dollar contracts with media giants and multiplatform agreements to retransmission consent pacts with single TV stations.
QUOTABLE: “We do a lot of things here that other companies in our industry aren’t even doing yet, and I get to do it living in Philadelphia, which to me is the best of all worlds.”
As lead attorney for Comcast’s Content Acquisition Group, Sarah Gitchell has played a key role in the company’s Xfinity TV cable operation being able to offer programming live on TV, on demand and on mobile apps.
On landmark deals like the 10-year pact struck with The Walt Disney Co. in 2012, which included out-of-home viewing on a variety of devices, and with Fox Networks the following year, she either helped lead negotiations or was right in the middle of things, company officials say.
Gitchell, who came to Comcast in 2005, mentions the renewal with CBS in 2013 that secured free on-demand access to big shows from the network’s primetime lineup when asked about memorable deals she’s worked on.
She also makes note of Comcast efforts like Streampix, the multiscreen subscription video-on-demand service launched to Xfinity TV subscribers in 2012, long before the launch of the X1 platform embraced rival streaming services such as Netflix and Sling TV. Pacts to offer movies and TV shows for sale via electronic sell-through, or EST, also broke new ground for the nation’s biggest cable operator, and the overall industry.
“That’s one of the things I love about working here,” she said in a recent chat in a conference room on the 45th floor of the Comcast Center in Philadelphia. “We’re always thinking about, ‘How do people want to consume this content? And if we have the technology to provide it other ways, why aren’t we doing that if that’s the direction people are going?’ ”
Finds Lots of Positives at Comcast
Gitchell said she finds a lot to love about the company she joined after working as an associate at local law firm Dechert LLP. One plus mark she cites is the encouragement to take on new responsibilities.
“If you can do what the company is asking you to do and do it in the right way, those are the people that get to succeed and continue on and get new responsibilities and more things to do,” she said. “It’s very much not what you look like, not who you are, we just need this done. And if you’re great at making that happen, we’ll give you more to do.”
Also, her boss (Lynn Charytan, the 2015 Wonder Woman whose titles include Comcast Cable general counsel) and Comcast’s Content Acquisition team, led by executive VP Greg Rigdon and including Jen Gaiski, Justin Smith and Mike Nisenblatt. “They’re fantastic. I can’t say enough,” she said. “I think they’re the best at what they do in the industry and also just super nice, super fun people to work with.”
And guess who is a big fan of Philadelphia? Gitchell grew up in Ames, Iowa, and when she decided to come east and had the choice of Princeton University and the University of Pennsylvania, she chose Penn and the big city.
“I loved Penn and I stayed here,” she said, obtaining her law doctorate at Temple University Beasley School of Law before joining Dechert in the Corporate and Securities group.
An art history major at Penn, Gitchell had worked at Freeman’s Auction House while attending law school at night (and finishing her studies in three and a half years).
She also taught aerobics for years, until suffering an ankle break after slipping on a patch of ice. While recovering, she met her future husband, Gary Dorfman, at the gym. “My dad always called it my lucky break,” she said.
Dorfman has his own business. He owns two sandwich shops in Philly: Jake’s Sandwich Board, on 12th and Samson, and Hatch & Coop, a chicken joint in University City. He used to be a health-care consultant before going into restaurants. “We eat very well at my house,” Gitchell said.
They have two young daughters, Rose, who is 13, and Lily, who is 10 and a half. They enjoy going back to Iowa for the Iowa State Fair, where the girls get to see “kids their age showing animals and being responsible for things, which is nice for them to see.” Depending on the year, they might see lots of politicians there, too. Gitchell has pictures of John McCain walking by with a pork chop on a stick.
Higher-Ups Call Her ‘A Hidden Jewel’
In nominating Gitchell to be a Wonder Woman, Rigdon and Comcast senior executive VP David Cohen called her a “hidden jewel” at the company and said “her influence in the industry, and within Comcast, is extensive and significant.”
Content providers she deals with respect her legal opinions, they said, and Comcast Cable leaders trust her advice, “not only for her legal expertise, but also for her knowledge about the television industry and the changing dynamics of the programming landscape.” They also praise her diverse and inclusive hiring, and her mentoring activities.
Asked what the next big thing Comcast wants to prepare for in terms of content distribution, Gitchell said essentially the aim is to be as ready as possible when the next unanticipated new thing comes along. She said, for example, Comcast was doing TV everywhere deals — to let subscribers view content on outside devices — back before iPad tablets existed and thus weren’t specifically mentioned in contracts.
“Just try to get a rights profile that’s broad, because you don’t actually know,” she said.