Deborah Beece has tried to inject humor, irreverence and the unexpected into the lineup at Oxygen, where she is president of programming and marketing. And a few years ago, she found out first-hand how at least one of her shows had struck a chord with viewers.
Beece's teenage son came home and said that all the girls in his class were watching Oxygen's hidden-camera show, Girls Behaving Badly.
“That's on your network, isn't it?'” he asked her. She promptly arranged to have a box of Girls Behaving Badly T-shirts sent to his school. “And they loved it,” Beece said.
Beece, 51, was named Oxygen's president of programming in November 2000, with a promotion to president of programming and marketing in November 2004. She was recruited by — and reunited with — her former Nickelodeon boss, Geraldine Laybourne.
“Gerry is exceptionally generous and really gives you the room to create and do things that are new and different,” Beece said. “And she loves to take creative risks, so that's a big driver for me. … Who would do a show about fat girls on a stage?”
In her Oxygen tenure, Beece has developed some of the women's network's most buzzworthy series and breakout shows, such as the aforementioned Mo'Nique's F.A.T. Chance, Talk Sex With Sue Johanson, The Janice Dickinson Modeling Agency, and Campus Ladies.
“They're all unexpected, and I think they turn some conventions on their ear a little bit,” Beece said. “And they take a very unique and different perspective for programming, No. 1, and for women's programming, most definitely. And I think they just have a sense of humor and a sense of spirit about them that's very female but very funny, very irreverent.”
Working for Oxygen, a women's network, is a good fit for Beece on many levels. “I always wanted to work in women's entertainment,” she said. “I remember Gerry and I trying to talk Sumner [Redstone, Viacom's chairman] into buying Lifetime [Television].”
As a 'tween in the 60s, Beece was inspired by the era's feminist icons. Today, Beece has a photo of Jane Fonda, concealed behind some other papers, hanging over her desk. “See the picture I hide from people?” she joked.
In October, Beece won a Crossing Borders Award at the Feminist Press Gala, and Fonda and Gloria Steinem were in attendance. “I got to meet all my idols,” Beece said. “I got up and said these two women changed my life.”
Reared in Hastings-on-Hudson, N.Y., Beece is the daughter of an ad-executive father and a mother who was a liberal Democrat political activist. Beece recalled that her favorite commercial of her father's was for Peek Freans. She even sang part of its catchy jingle, about Peek Freans being “a very serious cookie.”
Growing up as a self-described “overweight” and “dysfunctional child,” Beece was entranced by TV and movies.
“I, from when I was 10, knew I needed to be in the entertainment business,” she said. “I was obsessed with television and movies. I spent my whole childhood in front of one screen or the other.” Beece got her degree from New York University's film school.
“I wanted to study storytelling, which is sort of the root of all entertainment,” she said.
She briefly worked at Lorimar Telepictures, but her father advised her to make career headway by finding a niche and a new business. She found that young industry: cable TV.
Beece applied for a job as a secretary at Nickelodeon in 1979, and was promoted again and again, finally succeeding Laybourne as head of programming when Laybourne was named the network's president.
Beece helped develop Nick fare such as Double Dare, Clarissa Explains It All and Rugrats.
“It was a lot of kids'-world stuff, that if you're a kid, you're cool; if you're not a kid, this is not the place for you,” Beece said.
Karen Flischel, now general manager for Here TV, was doing consumer research for Nick in the 1980s and worked with Beece on focus groups.
“We'd talk to the kids about what was going on in their lives, what was important,” Flischel said. “We wanted to understand them beyond just programming, because that would inform programming. That was sort of Debby's and Geraldine Laybourne's approach.”
During her watch at Nick, Beece was also responsible for the programming launches of Nick at Nite and Ha!, which ultimately merged with Comedy Central.
She worked for Neil Braun, who is now president of distribution and marketing at Starz Media, as president of programming and production at Viacom.
Braun recalled that at the time, NBC had passed on David Letterman and picked Jay Leno as its late-night host. Beece came up with the idea of trying to convince Letterman to let Viacom syndicate his show.
“It was a really big idea, to try to do that,” Braun said. “Letterman didn't want to go to syndication. … But we did such a comprehensive plan, and it was so well thought out and so aggressive, that we got people's attention.”
He still sings Beece's praises.
“She's very definitive in her point of view, but that clarity is really useful, because she not only has got an opinion, she can back it up with facts,” Braun said. “So even if I ended up disagreeing with her, I always got smarter after a conversation with her.”
Before joining Oxygen, Beece was president of Nickelodeon Pictures, where she created films such as Harriet the Spy and Rugrats. She found out her preference was creating content for TV, not moviemaking.
“Programming is much more fun,” Beece said. “There is no comparison at all. Making a film is solving a very specific problem over and over again. I don't find it all that dimensional, and it's very slow. It takes forever.”
One of the first shows Beece brought to Oxygen was an import from Canada, a call-in sex-advice show, Talk Sex With Sue Johanson, that featured a grandmotherly nurse.
“I had just come to Oxygen, and Oxygen was in transition,” Beece said. “It was such a difficult launch process, and the Internet [portion] collapsed, and I just wanted to go underground and clean the thing up and get it up with new shows.”
Beece looked at a tape of Johanson, liked it, and showed it to Laybourne, who OK'd it. Johanson was one of Oxygen's first breakout stars.
As for Beece's work at Oxygen, Flischel said, “She's gotten some programs out there that have generated some buzz for them, and that's primarily the job, primarily what she's looking to do.”
Married to a marketing executive, Beece is a mother of three, and an avid, skilled knitter who also enjoys the outdoors. She'll be skiing in Utah in February.