Thirty years since USA Network's Kay Koplovitz made history as the first female network president, there has been a wave of women programmers in top jobs. Consider Anne Sweeney at Disney ABC Television Networks, Judy McGrath at MTV Networks, Abbe Raven at A&E Networks, Geraldine Laybourne at Oxygen Media and Debra Lee at Black Entertainment Television. And those are just the CEOs.
Cable boasts a wellspring of female presidents and development executives who are leading individual networks that speak to a wide range of audiences and many are achieving ratings successes with some of the most unique shows on television. These executives have redefined what women can accomplish, while opening new opportunities for the women still to follow in the burgeoning digital media landscape.
“Having different voices in the room is always going to have a positive impact on the programming that we put out there,” said MTV president Christina Norman. “As an African-American woman, being able to be a part of that conversation, to be in places where we screen our pilots and share an opinion about them is part of a healthy dialogue to making sure that we are representative of all aspects of our audience.”
“It's absolutely essential to have those voices in senior decision making ranks,” said Tim Brooks, Lifetime research executive, historian and co-author of The Complete Directory to Prime Time Network and Cable TV Shows. “If you don't have that diversity of voices in the dialogue that leads up to the creation of something then you're missing out on something important in the end result. It doesn't have to be at the end of the table, but it needs to be at the table.”
IN THE BEGINNING
For the most part, many of the women who are now sitting at the head of those tables were there from the very beginning when cable was still the Rodney Dangerfield of media.
In the 1980s, many women with innovative ideas were entering the workforce when cable was a unique entrepreneurial enterprise ripe for the picking. They came, fresh out of college or looking to move out of stale broadcasting positions, getting in on the ground floor of this burgeoning industry, helping to build and grow many of today's most popular cable networks.
“In many ways cable fancied itself then — and probably still does — as the new frontier,” said Nickelodeon president Cyma Zarghami. “They were looking for smart people, and you really can't be discriminating in gender when you need smart people to really get on board with a booming business.”
The sheer number of new channels spawned more available opportunities. “Cable opened vacancies that weren't there before in broadcast,” said Robert Thompson Director of The Center for the Study of Popular TV at Syracuse University in New York.
He added, “Women were increasing in college enrollment, and even today, there are almost always more women in my classes than there are men. So the pool is a lot deeper now from which you can take, and essentially promote and move up.”
Women from varied disciplines, with upper level degrees in economics, law, marketing, fine arts and more, flooded the marketplace and were beginning to see the scope of cable's potential in the industry, while carving out successful careers for themselves.
“It was definitely the land of opportunity,” said Colours Television Network president and CEO Tracy Jenkins Winchester, who left a career as a Congressional press agent in 1985 to work in cable. “I started in operations and there were very few women rising through the ranks, but I could see all the possibilities that were there on the programming side, and women were just going up the ladder.”
“We were all scrappers, and we wanted to do interesting things,” recalled Bonnie Hammer, president of USA Network and Sci Fi Channel. “I didn't enter into the business thinking I've got to make a name for myself or prove that women in this industry can be something, it was more about the freedom. It wasn't rigid. You could stir things up.”
For women making moves in cable, trade associations like the National Cable & Telecommunications Association, Cable & Telecommunications Association for Marketing and Women in Cable Telecommunications became essential to fostering networking opportunities and offering early role models, according to WICT president Benita Fitzgerald Mosley.
“In this industry, in particular, it's very relationship driven,” said Fitzgerald Mosley. “With WICT and other organizations in cable, if you're able to tap into that, increase your network and develop strong, real relationships with people, not only in your company, but throughout the industry, then when that next opportunity opens up you're thought of because people know you and what you've been accomplishing because everybody knows everybody.”
And senior executives mentored other women coming into the business. It's an ideology that journalist Anna Quindlen described as the “move up, reach down motto” when talking about the early days of women moving into newspapers and magazines, but it was also prevalent for women in cable.
“We do a thing here at Scripps Networks called the Senior Women's Forum,” said Food Network president Brooke Bailey Johnson. “We get together twice a year to talk about women's issues and what's going on at the company and making sure that opportunities for women stay as vibrant as they did in the early days of the business.”
“I was very active at MTV Networks in the early days in encouraging women,” added Laybourne, the former Nickelodeon chief who helped form “The Power Chicks,” a group within MTVN to support and celebrate women in the workplace.
“There was this myth that women had to be just like men, we couldn't talk about our differences — we couldn't be different,” Laybourne continued. “We had to dress the same, we had to wear bow ties and navy blue suits and there were books written about how you were supposed to speak. At MTV, we completely threw that out. Judy McGrath was going to be as creative and wild as she was, and I was going to be as outspoken as I was and we weren't going to get put in a box. If we had tried to be like men, we would have done a very poor job.”
In fact, part of Laybourne's mission when she founded Oxygen was not only to create a “hip and fun” network for young adult women, but to continue putting “chicks” in power positions.
“At Oxygen, virtually all the employees are women, and that makes sense for Oxygen and it's what Gerry was setting out to do,” said CTAM president and CEO Char Beals. “But at MTV Networks, you look at the senior work chart and it's predominantly women now under Judy McGrath. There are still a few high-profile men, and I'm not making any claim that she's discriminating, but I think that's really interesting. You expect it at Oxygen, but maybe you don't expect it at MTV.”
THE VIEW FROM THE TOP
Amid the focus on helping women achieve, there are some female executives who don't want to be perceived as playing gender favorites. “I have to say that the whole hiring dialogue is essential,” said Lauren Zalaznick, president of Bravo whose programming president, coincidentally or not, is also a woman, Frances Berwick. “It's part of my business strategy, it's part of my creative strategy, and it's part of my world view, but I don't limit it just to women.”
ABC Disney's Ann Sweeney said, “I think what you would want people, not so much to see, but to think about, are some of the choices being made by women. It's not so much about the woman thing as it is what role are they playing in their companies and if you look at the media's face and the women [in it], what's changing in that sector and what are the lessons that I can import from that.”
But do women run businesses differently than men? “Research has shown that women are generally more collaborative,” said Fitzgerald Mosley, “and I think what that does for a cable network is help you really tap into the diversity and interests of your viewers, particularly as you refine what that audience is and really understand how they like to receive that information and on what platforms.”
Added Brooks: “I'm reluctant to generalize,” he said. “The fact is that once you get into a position of power or real decision making in a network, you become a slave to the balance sheet. You begin to learn very quickly, as Kay [Koplovitz] did and all the others did, that at the end of the day, you're judged on whether you turn a profit and whether you grow the business.”
When it comes to programming, not every female executive is thinking about women. “Gerry [Laybourne] is obviously the head of a network that's about women, so I can understand where she's coming from,” said Nancy Dubuc, president of The History Channel. “But I think as business leaders, we're all in these chairs not thinking about that necessarily. We're tasked with growing our businesses and that's how I approach it. The woman conversation always makes me uncomfortable because I don't really feel like that's what it's all about.”
THE GLASS CEILING
Despite cable's history of female leadership, “women are still dramatically underrepresented in corporate offices and on boards of directors of Fortune 500 companies,” said Marcee Harris, director of advisory services at Catalyst, a research and advisory group focused on women in business. “The same is also true of women in entertainment fields.”
“I've seen a lot of women exiting the business actually,” said Carlsen Resources president Ann Carlsen, who added that when women like Koplovitz and former Lifetime executive Carole Black finally make it to the top, there's still nowhere else to go. “You reach a ceiling, and most women go off and start their own businesses, but that's a phenomenon across all industries.”
But Fitzgerald Mosley argues that “to a large degree women have free reign to advance their careers as they see fit. They hold, and have held positions of power all the way up the corporate ladder on the network side, which is a vastly different situation on the cable operator side. With so many new wireless operations, high speed data and telephone services getting ready to explode in the next 18 months or so, I just hope women look at this industry for all the opportunities that are available to them.”
A NEW FRONTIER
When it comes to women in new media, the landscape is even more barren, according to Catalyst reports, which note less than 20% of technology fields are occupied by women.
For executives like Norman, changing the tide will be crucial to the next generation of women in media. “Emerging technologies, digital screen, the multiplatform thing, that's all very male and it's an interesting place where I find myself in more situations both in our building and outside of our building where I'm one of very few women in conversations now,” she said. “As we have mentored young women to be at certain aspects of the entertainment industry, we need to encourage as many of them as possible to explore more of the technology sides of the industry where a lot of the growth in the future is going to come from.”
“The biggest impact is on the new generation of women coming up in the ranks,” said BET's Lee. “In the same way that young people today never knew a world without cable or the Internet, women in the cable industry have always seen us in leadership positions and know that the opportunity to succeed at the highest level is very real.”