As head of one of cable’s most well-known brands, many people want to sit down with Christina Norman. But if you want face time with the MTV: Music Television president, prepare for a workout instead of a power lunch.
“I can’t go out to eat anymore with people,” she says. “If you want to come see me, let’s go ice skating for an hour.”
Norman hasn’t let success change her approach to life. Whether overseeing day-to-day operations at the 25-year-old MTV or being a wife and mother to her two young daughters, Norman has always done things with her own style and flair.
Even as a child, Norman knew she’d be in a field where she could express her creative talent. But running the music-and-youth-culture service wasn’t in her dreams.
“I grew up in the South Bronx. … I didn’t think this was a job you could have, let alone one that I could have,” Norman says. “A good job was a teacher, a nurse and, if you were lucky, a lawyer. But television was not a career choice in those days.”
Norman did watch a lot of 1970s and 1980s television, and that came in handy in 2002, when she was general manager of pop-culture heavy VH1. “Who knew spending so much time in front of the television would actually pay off?” she says.
To hear Norman tell it, she stumbled into television in 1985, when she became a freelance commercial production assistant in Massachusetts, after leaving Boston University. “I worked on all sorts of commercials — I thought that was what I wanted to do,” she says.
She eventually relocated to New York in the mid-1980s, working as a freelance producer. That’s when VH1 hired her as a freelance production manager, working on a talk show featuring comedian Carol Leifer.
In 1990, she applied for a production management job at MTV, but was turned down, only to have the same spot open up shortly thereafter.
“The person who got it, ended up moving on a year later, so they called me,” recalls Norman. “The message on my machine was for Christina Robinson. I came in anyway for the interview and got the gig.”
At MTV, she began producing promos for such breakthrough series as Beavis and Butt-head. Norman then transitioned into marketing in the mid-1990s, eventually overseeing the network’s on and off-air promotions and affiliate marketing departments. Under her leadership, MTV won numerous advertising, design, and promotion awards from Broadcast Design Association, Promax, the Cable & Telecommunications Association for Marketing and the Art Director’s Club.
In 2002, an opportunity opened up for her return to VH1 — this time as its general manager. Norman took over a struggling network that lacked brand identity and was in the midst of significant ratings decline.
“It was a channel that had gone through a bit of a dip,” she says. “The VH1 team had become a little discouraged during a tough time — they really just needed to sort of regain their footing and work together in a new way than they had. Once they trusted themselves again, great ideas could bubble up and make it successful again.”
Giving the network a new on-air look and placing a greater emphasis on pop culture-oriented programming like the network’s successful I Love the … specials — and less on older-skewing music videos — Norman and team turned the network around, recording the highest viewership levels in its 19-year history during 2004.
“What I learned at VH1 was how to lead and how to inspire people the way I felt I’d been inspired to be the best,” says Norman, who was named president of the network in 2004.
Norman’s own inspiration comes from a number of sources, starting with her parents.
Norman also cites MTV executive Abby Terkuhle “for giving my first big break. I was desperate to be in the creative department and he was able to see and believe in me.”
She also points to Judy McGrath as one of her greatest influences: the MTVN chairman and CEO appointed Norman last May to run the iconic MTV. The historical distinction is not lost on Norman.
“I recognize the fact that I’m the first African-American woman to run this network and that’s important to me, and it means a lot to other people who have been kind enough to reach out to me,” she says. “As with all of these jobs and careers, as more people see me and [Black Entertainment Television CEO] Debra [Lee] in these positions, they’ll see there are other options for them. There’s been a lot of progress, but obviously a lot more has to be made.”
At MTV, Norman hasn’t made sweeping changes at what was the birthplace of music videos, but is now increasingly the home of reality fare like The Real World and Laguna Beach: The Real Orange County. “MTV has been led through its history by incredibly visionary people and I’m proud to follow in that legacy,” she says. “I don’t necessarily want to change anything, but the spirit of MTV is the spirit of evolution and revolution, and I think that’s what I’m really excited to be apart of right now.”
Meanwhile, Norman continues to move to her own beat. Now residing in Brooklyn, Norman still loves to roller blade and cook, and is a “fierce” ice skater.
She’s also optimistic about her future. “No matter where I am, I hope that I’m someplace where I can be inspired by talented people and be involved in something that’s evolving, innovative and changing,” she says. “I hope to create something for an audience someplace that empowers them.”