There's nothing like a life-or-death question looming over an asset to test an executive's leadership. And as Lauren Zalaznick, president of NBC Universal Cable networks Bravo and Trio, sits in her Rockefeller Center office, she appears both collected and charged up.
“It couldn't be more of a cliché to say that you don't really learn as much in raging times of success as you do in times of challenge. But it's an absolute truth,” she says. “You learn more about your job and the culture and the people around you — both above you and below you.”
Zalaznick knew well in advance that DirecTV Inc. would cut distribution of Trio at the end of 2004, shaving the channel's subscriber universe in half to some 10 million. In turn, she issues a “watch this space” advisory as to how NBC Universal intends to address the situation. But clearly she isn't taking an “It's my poor baby!” attitude.
“I didn't birth [Trio]. It is not my limb that is threatened,” says Zalaznick, who became head of the network in May 2002. “It was a house, and I was invited to renovate it and redecorate it. Everybody loves my paint colors, what I did to the place. But if a hurricane comes along and knocks off a wing, I'll rebuild it.
“It was my job to make Trio,” she adds. “And it's a team that took that challenge more to heart and more successfully in every realm but distribution.”
Clearly, NBC Universal has great confidence in her building skills. It expanded Zalaznick's responsibilities to include the president's role at Bravo in July 2004, just two months after NBC's purchase of Vivendi Universal Entertainment was finalized. Since that time, she has spent a tremendous amount of energy rebranding Bravo — helping to forge its new on-air look, while also overseeing the development of returning and new series and specials like Project Greenlight, Queer Eye for the Straight Girl, The Brand New Kathy Griffin: D List Special, Cirque du Soleil's “La Nouba,” Showdog Moms & Dads, The Million Dollar Recipe and The Sarah Jones Show. She also expects to announce “dozens of pilots” for new Bravo shows in the months ahead.
“For Bravo, the challenge is to capitalize on the astonishing baptism of buzz that broke open with Queer Eye for the Straight Guy,” Zalaznick says. While she may find room for more spinoffs like Queer Eye for the Straight Girl, “I really feel that Bravo's job is to take trends in the arts, pop culture and entertainment — maybe Sarah Jones, who's an old East Village performer, or narrowly focused documentaries — and give them a life outside of one-hour specials.”
Zalaznick herself is a bit of a pop culture diva. Her revamp of Trio was all about making the public associate the phrase “pop culture” with the network. Earlier, when she migrated from the world of independent film to MTV Networks' VH1 service almost 10 years ago — first as vice president of on-air promotions and then senior VP of original programming and development — she was a key force that helped transform the channel into something decidedly more hip. When she arrived, VH1 “was a channel in distress, with no brand, no programming,” she recalls. Among the VH1 shows and events she championed: VH1 Divas Live, the VH1 Fashion Awards and Pop Up Video.
“She's wildly creative,” says Comedy Central president Doug Herzog, who crossed paths with Zalaznick when both held positions at MTV Networks and at USA Cable, the network group that housed Trio under Vivendi Universal Entertainment. “She's the single hippest person you'll ever meet. She has a real nose for that.”
Perhaps no one knows Zalaznick's skills better than Jeff Gaspin, who “inherited” her twice: He was her boss first at VH1, when he was executive vice president of programming and production; and now again in his role as president of NBC Universal Cable Entertainment and Cross-Network Strategy.
“I watched her grow the first time [we worked together], and now she really gets that combination of commercialism and artistic integrity,” Gaspin says. “That combination in an executive is quite rare.”
Gaspin says Zalaznick's greatest challenge isn't Trio, but Bravo. “We did a great job of getting attention when I was head of Bravo,” Gaspin says, referring to hits like Queer Eye and Celebrity Poker Challenge. “But we never had a chance to put it together” to create a strongly branded channel with a strong identity.
Zalaznick's own identity was formed on Long Island's north shore. Her father worked in New York's fashion business and later became involved in financial services. Her mother taught school and segued into interior design. Today Zalaznick, her husband and three children — ages 10, 8 and 3 — live within blocks of her parents and her sister in Manhattan. And her “renegade brother” lives in the Riverdale section of the Bronx, “so we all get our passports and go up there.”
When she first graduated from Brown University, Zalaznick worked in the film business. Among the movies she worked on was Todd Haynes's Safe, with Julianne Moore, and Larry Clark's Kids. She stepped back briefly into the film world while at MTVN, where she executive-produced Zoolander, based on a character Ben Stiller created for the VH1 Fashion Awards.
But she says that she much prefers TV. Looking into the distant future, Zalaznick sees herself working in an entirely different business — “as the head of something that needs to be transformed.”
Clearly, it's the unknown — what's up ahead on her personal growth curve — that she finds the most stimulating. “To take that idea of 'what I don't know' and apply it to retail or travel or — I can't even guess, because I don't know — is something I look forward to,” she says.