For Sundance Channel president and general manager Sarah Barnett, the network’s recent Golden Globe Awards win for original series Top of the Lake is the latest in a litany of industry accolades amassed in just a little over two years with her at the helm.
Barnett’s uncanny ability to recognize quality, awardwinning original content for a network with independent film roots helped yield Elisabeth Moss a best actress in a miniseries Globe this year for Top of the Lake; a 2011 original minseries Globes win for Carlos; 2011 Golden Globe and Screen Actors Guild nominations for drama series Appropriate Adult; and a network-record 10 Primetime Emmy Award nominations last year for originals Top of the Lake and Restless.
‘A GIRL FROM KEMP’
Quite an accomplishment for a young lady who didn’t know what cable was growing up in her native England.
“I had never heard of cable or even that it existed in England, so I never imagined I would be lucky enough to be running a TV network in New York City,” she said. “For a girl from Kemp, it was not really a dream that was something I could imagine.”
What she could imagine growing up as a the second-oldest in a family of six siblings was that she would be a successful, independent woman, not unlike the TV character Rhoda Morgenstern from two of the few U.S.-based TV series she watched as a teen, Rhoda and The Mary Tyler Moore Show.
“What that translated to in my young teenager head was having a clipboard in the middle of a very busy environment and being the one whose job it was to try to establish some order,” she said.
Barnett, 48, would eventually get her chance to be an executive in TV. She joined the BBC in the mid-1980s as an administrator, immediately after earning a bachelor’s degree in art history from the University of Warwick in West Midlands, England. As a schedule organizer for the broadcast network’s studio managers, Barnett said she quickly adapted to the “live nature” of television business.
“You can plan to a certain extent, but so much of the thing depended on quick thinking in the moment,” she said.
After “shape-shifting” at the BBC, including positions in both radio and television, Barnett in 2001 would again take on a new role. This time, the opportunity would be at BBC America, the relatively new U.S. off shoot network based in Washington, D.C.
“BBC America was supposed to be a two-year stint — what BBC people call an attachment — where I would do a job while my job would be kept open for me in London,” Barnett said. “It felt like a safe adventure. I intended to be in America for two years, and that was 12 years ago.”
Barnett’s “attachment” stint at the then three-year-old BBC America was initially as head of branding and on-air creative marketing, a position she initially struggled with.
“Your job in that department is to communicate with the audience very quickly, and I realized very quickly I couldn’t speak American,” she said, laughing. “I really had to quite consciously learn the language, aided somewhat by finding myself an American husband within about six months of arriving here,” she said of her husband, Chris Brown. “He was a crucial part of my education in starting to speak American.”
One of her first responsibilities was putting together the network’s upfront presentation, which she said familiarized her with not only the network’s content, but also the inner workings of the U.S. television business.
“It was an exciting opportunity to jump into the whole new world,” she said. “It felt quite freeing.”
Barnett took her marketing and executive skills to Sundance Channel in 2005, where she would rise to general manager in 2009, shortly after Rainbow Media (now AMC Networks) purchased the channel from NBCUniversal, CBS and founder Robert Redford for $496 million.
“Sundance was full of smart people who had a background in independent film, and I didn’t know the industry very well,” she said. “It was a place that was stuffed full of really clever, slightly eccentric and personable people.”
Mostly known for airing independent movies, the network under Barnett moved toward original programming in 2012, following in the footsteps of her current bosses, AMC Networks chief operating officer Ed Carroll and CEO Josh Sapan. They had already been successful repositioning the former American Movie Classics channel into a home for originals.
“To a certain extent the playbook had already been written by AMC, advancing the idea of developing premium content on cable,” she said.
Carroll gives Barnett all the credit for Sundance Channel’s original programming success. “She has great taste, a nose for quality and is a natural motivator of people,” he said.
Barnett hopes to continue Sundance’s successful original series streak with the February debut of drama series The Red Road, which depicts the dynamics between two clashing communities. As for her own personal success, Barnett — a fan of character-driven drama shows Mad Men and Downton Abbey who resides in upstate New York with her husband — attributes her good fortune to her ability to be open-minded and to take advantage of available opportunities.
“What’s worked for me is being open-minded and curious, and not being really too fixed on, ‘I want to be that,’ ” she said. “I couldn’t have imagined this job, but I think I would have done myself a disservice if I had stuck rigidly to something I could have imagined.”
TITLE: President and General Manager, Sundance Channel
CAREER: Vice President of On-Air, BBC America; Director/Producer, BBC TV
QUOTABLE: “The quality of life that I constantly seek is one of perspective, so regardless of what’s going on, you have to have the ability to not lose your head and find a way to gain perspective on what life is all about. I don’t always succeed, but that’s my conscious intention.”