In her nearly 20-year television career, Kate Juergens has had a hand in bringing such popular and breakthrough shows as Will and Grace, Gilmore Girls, Smallville, Lincoln Heights and The Secret Life Of An American Teenager to the small screen.
Not bad for someone who had never even watched a television show before she was a teenager.
Juergens, currently ABC Family executive vice president of original series programming and development, cultivated her “family” skills as the oldest of seven children born in San Francisco to an attorney father and an environmental ecologist mother. But her early years were defined more by literature than television.
“My parents would not allow us to watch television until I was 13, and then after that it was for one hour a week, so I was totally television deprived,” she said. “Consequently I was a big reader — authors like C.S. Lewis and books about Southern culture were some of my early influences.”
After earning a degree in English Literature at Berkeley in 1985, Jurgens began to sharpen her creative eye working as a buyer for the clothing company agnès b. in New York City.
Five years later, Juergens decided to move back the West Coast and got into the entertainment business working at the Creative Artists Agency. After six months of “torturous” work there, she jumped to NBC as an assistant to then director of drama development Kevin Reilly.
“It was then that I knew that I wanted to work on television,” Juergens said. She worked her way up to NBC's programming department as an associate, where she was involved in the development of such shows as Will and Grace, The West Wing and Frasier. She also had the opportunity to work with programming executives such as ABC Entertainment president Steve McPherson, FX president John Langraf and Oprah Winfrey Network president Robin Schwartz.
“We had a great group of people working there at the time,” she said.
After advancing to NBC vice president of programming, Juergens' interest was piqued by an opening for senior vice president of development at then startup network The WB.
“The WB was just getting up and running when they brought me over as head of development,” she said. “It was becoming very clear that they were a network with a young focus, and my mandate was teen programming and to get a comedy breakout.”
Juergens went on to develop such WB staples as The Gilmore Girls, Smallville, Reba and Felicity. Juergens attributes much of her success to a sixth sense about what people will like.
“I've always had incredible and perhaps unearned confidence in my taste, even when I was working in New York as a fashion buyer, so I think I'm a good buyer,” she said. “If I like it, usually America is going to like it — I have sort of mainstream tastes.”
“Kate is at heart a programmer,” said ABC Family president Paul Lee. “She has a natural instinct for what works, for optimistic storytelling and for what resonates with the network's core Millennial audience. She also has a great track-record of finding and encouraging new writers and show-runners. Kate's done a fantastic job with her team in helping to turn our shows, such as Greek and The Secret Life of an American Teenager, into brand-defining franchises for ABC Family.”
But in 2002, Juergens traded in her buyer's hat for a production chair and left The WB to launch a startup production company with former Lifetime entertainment president Suzanne Daniels. The company, Primary Entertainment, created a short-lived NBC series Hidden Hills and a WB telepic The Lone Ranger.
“We actually had quite a bit of success for a young company, but I'm just happier as a buyer, not as a seller — it's not my nature,” she said.
In January 2004, Juergens would take a programming consulting position at ABC Family, which was under the oversight of current Disney Media Networks co-chair Anne Sweeney. Three months later, Sweeney would hire former BBC America CEO Lee to run the network, which at the time relied mostly on family-targeted movies and off-network series.
“I sort of passed on [to Lee] what I felt would be good for the channel, and we really hit it off and so he decided to hire me full time,” she said.
At ABC Family, Juergens set out to develop original content for the network's target “millennial” audience of 12- to 32-year-old viewers.
“It's the largest demographic group since the baby boomers and we found that family is hugely important for them,” she said.
Juergens hit paydirt in 2006 with Kyle XY. “It was really well written, had a distinctive lead character and some really interesting mythology mixed in, but it still had family front and center which was something that we were really looking for,” she said.
Kyle XY was followed by scripted hits Lincoln Heights, TV's only drama featuring a predominately African-American cast, and Greek.
In 2008, Juergens launched her biggest hit to date, The Secret Life of an American Teenager. The series, about a teen dealing with an unplanned pregnancy, was a risky move for the family-targeted network. But it became the most watched scripted series on cable in 2008 among the network's targeted millennial viewers.
“Our thought was to target our millennium audience but make it about family — it's not programming for the youngest member of the family but it is about family and family values,” she said.