Lauren Zalaznick, the president of NBC Universal Women and Lifestyle Entertainment Networks, is on hard-won temporary duty in Beijing, where she’s been working closely with NBC Sports and Olympics producer David Michaels.
At the age of 44, when many working stiffs become bored stiff, Ms. Zalaznick, whose energetic leadership has breathed life (and ratings) into more than one cable network at death’s door, has professional dreams and she’s not ashamed to beg to make them come true.
The Insider talked to Ms. Zalaznick at 10 p.m. EDT, which was 10 a.m. the next day Beijing time, about her excellent adventure, which is being shared by husband Phelim Dolan, daughters Ada, 13, and Lucy, 11, and son Dale, 6.
The topics ranged from her campaign for the assignment and what she’s learned, to what it feels like to be surrounded by hundreds of Chinese men in their Opening Ceremony garb aiming their digital cameras at her family and, perhaps, most importantly, how she learned to love her hair in the humidity.
The Insider: You do realize that by taking a month off from your day job to go work for NBC Sports in Beijing, you make workaholics feel like pikers. What motivated this job switch?
Lauren Zalaznick: Well I would say that I love sports. I used to love the Olympics. And I thought having witnessed the run-ups to both the Athens Olympics and the Torino Olympics and a lot of the Beijing Olympics, it felt like a chance to experience one of the last great truly foreign Summer Olympics, meaning other side of the world, literally, very closed-off place, unexploited by TV, and more importantly for me, a chance to experience a little bit of the inner workings of a part of the company that only happens [with the Summer Olympics].
The Insider: Just how much did you debase yourself to convince Sports to agree?
Ms. Zalaznick: I would say that most of the interaction was, “No, I’m not kidding,” and the “No, I’m not kidding” was about six months. Then, the “No, I’m serious” was tried. That was another six months. Sports got a taste of me with a bone. A year and a half later I’m sitting in a trailer compound with the gymno crew.
The Insider: How disorienting is it to be 12 hours and one day ahead of your usual time zone?
Ms. Zalaznick: It’s disconcerting. When I work in L.A., which most people in media in New York do frequently, you wake up and you’ve already missed three hours. Just that rush of the first three hours of ratings and phone calls is overwhelming. When you wake up here at 7 o’clock, the entire day has passed.
So if you are kind of keeping up with New York time, whether it’s for the Olympics, or ratings or press perspective or for a day job that I still do have, you wake up at 7 and people have worked their 7 a.m. to 7 p.m. and are just heading out. So a whole day of work is waiting for you at breakfast, basically.
And yet we’re a day ahead, so every morning during the prime-time show we’re sitting in the control room and I’m getting e-mail after e-mail from people sitting in their living rooms or sitting in their beds saying, “Oh my God, oh my God, oh my God, oh my God, they didn’t win it, she lost it” and you realize there’s no platitude [to cover] the overwhelming logistics and expertise that combine to send out these live broadcasts every night or every morning for us. It really is just a massive set of controlled chaotic experiences that comprise those telecasts and those broadcasts.
The Insider: How would you describe your duties and what you’ve learned?
Ms. Zalaznick: My boss for 10 days, David Michaels, gave me my title. That title is quality control, which I thought was like some kind of USDA-grade beef kind of job, and I’m happy to have it. I think what he means is that I really bring nothing to anything that this crew can be responsible for. There’s really nothing I can do or know how to do that someone here doesn’t know with 15 to 25 years’ more experience and know-how and passion, from the sports perspective and the production perspective.
That said, going back to what I said at the beginning, I have a deep spectator’s view and a deep TV executive-insider’s view and I think the job is almost literally, “Does this make sense? Are we over-complicating it or under-complicating it? What is the balance between the athleticism of the sport and the emotion of the sport?”
It is a hard line to toe. There are lots of polarities in the Olympics. There’s nationalism that should never cross the line into jingoism. There’s athleticism that needs to cross the line into emotion and personal triumph. There’s the hard fact of Olympic records and world records and scoring, which can be dramatic or can be quite tedious.
I think it is exciting for a crew who has been doing this a long time to have someone who is really, really, really excited to learn it like it’s new. You can ask David Michaels, but that is probably a kick for them and a privilege for me. Bottom line.
The Insider: So what have you learned in pure television, production or technological terms?
Ms. Zalaznick: On the one hand, it’s very good to be comforted by the fact that production is production. But on the other hand, I’ve learned pretty quickly and deeply that there is nothing like the Olympics. There is nothing like the Summer Olympics, in terms of sheer mass and expertise.
It’s not just the athletes. It’s the training by the athletes. It’s the judges. It’s the coaches. It’s the families. And it’s the whole kind of balance of who’s doing what in which sport at what time times 24 [competitions]. And it’s all happening in one control room that is supervising and shaping the other 20-something control rooms, where other experts are going deeper and deeper and deeper and deeper into their sports.
Live TV is live TV and you have very little chance to experience the wonderful mess of live television in which stuff happens. Someone is unexpectedly winning or losing and someone is expectedly winning, let’s say Michael Phelps. This is a steamroller of a story and you’re balancing that, but you also have to drive these other sports that are no less fascinating because a sort of unknown is going to win it.
It is also a learning that the world of network, the world of cable, the world of news and the world of sports are four distinct worlds. They’re like planets orbiting in the NBCU solar system. It’s literally like I am visiting another planet. It’s the Olympics planet. I have dipped into the network planet by proximity. I certainly live on the cable planet. I have dipped into the news planet, whether it’s the “Today” show or something like that. But this is a planet far, far away. It’s simply amazing that the company recognized that I wanted to do this and allowed me to do it, starting with [NBC Olympics President] Gary Zenkel, who I spent a year of “I’m not kidding. Yes, I’m serious” with, to Mr. [Dick] Ebersol and Mr. [Jeff] Zucker. What do they need a stranger in their midst for? This is the highest stakes there is and they absolutely made it happen.
The Insider: Is this your first immersion in high-def?
Ms. Zalaznick: I would say no. Bravo launched its own HD channel, so we’ve shot in HD. It’s a transparent happening. The bad news is that our high-def makes everything look worse, like the world feed that you go to every once in a while.
The Insider: How many events have you actually been able to attend?
Ms. Zalaznick: During the preliminaries on Saturday and Sunday I was in the venue, because they’re going on all day and you can kind of go back and forth. It was days before it went live in weekday prime time. I went to the Opening Ceremonies.
The Insider: How goose-bumpy was it to be there when 2,008 drums were beating in unison?
Ms. Zalaznick: It would have been goose-bumpy if my skin had not particulated into melted matter evaporating up into the stratosphere. Mentally, I had goose bumps. Physically, I was in a puddle on the floor of Section105, Row 21.
The Insider: Have you been able to play tourist at all?
Ms. Zalaznick: I have been to magnificent places that I think NBC is doing an incredible job portraying. My food experience alone has been—maybe it’s just me and my particular love of Asian food, and Chinese food especially—the best foreign food experience I have ever had at every level, street food, local food, seafood.
The Insider: Your favorite moment so far?
Ms. Zalaznick: Oh, I have it. I have it.
I was coming out of the Opening Ceremonies. You guys saw, watching TV, 3,000 men in white pants and white shirts running in the venue. You saw maybe 1,000, 1,500 of the cube people popping up and down and on and on. We kept saying, “Where are they all going?” because we come into the Bird’s Nest and see what the venue access is. And they take all their stuff with them. They take the drums. They take the cubes. They take the harnesses that they’re flying up in the air with. They’re taking it all.
So we’re leaving Opening Ceremonies. It’s 1,000 degrees. It’s a huge compound. You’ve got to walk a long way to even get to the perimeter of the Olympic Green. It’s very late. I’ve gotten here the day before. I’m not terrific in terms of mental acuity at the moment. I and my family, a total of five, found ourselves in a literal pouring-down-the-street wave of the cube people leaving the venue, and it was absolutely surreal because they were not carrying their cubes. Their cubes were still on their heads. We were swarmed like in a perpendicular direction by the cube people.
We finally waded through this river of cube flooding people going in one direction and then we were encountering the thousands of young men in white, who have just come out of the venue. They’ve taken off their shirts, because it’s 1,000 degrees. They all have digital cameras. My eldest daughter is 13 and she’s about 6 feet tall. My son, who’s 6, is very fair. He has very yellow hair and very pale skin and very blue eyes.
The white-dressed guys turn on us and start to swarm us with their digital cameras to take pictures of us as a family. It was like a weird reverse rock-star moment where all of a sudden there’s a commotion and like a bee-swarm toward us. We must have stood for these pictures that I’m sure are on 500 Chinese Facebook pages.
It was truly amazing and surreal, and it was also an introduction to how amazingly warm and open and nice and curious everyone I have personally encountered is, from taxi drivers to the fleet of volunteers doing security at every checkpoint.
The Insider: As the executive associated with “Project Runway,” what was your favorite Opening Ceremony costume?
Ms. Zalaznick: As you know, last Wednesday night [Aug. 6’s “Runway”] was where we did our Opening Ceremonies outfits challenge, where Apollo Ohno was the guest judge. We took so much flak from ourselves (our toughest critics) and viewers at large saying, “Oh, come on, they all should have been in shorts and what kind of ridiculous things” and all that. All I could think during the 200-degree, two-hour march of nations was, “Wow. If only we had really put out a gallery of the history of Opening Ceremony outfits.” There was a dramatic variety of costumes, I really would call them costumes, as opposed to outfits, in some case.
The Insider: Given the heat and humidity in Beijing, how cruel was it to put athletes in hats and jackets and, for gawdsakes, ascots?
Ms. Zalaznick: It was a little toasty. It was absolutely a little toasty. I have to believe that no one could have been more uncomfortable than me—leaders of nations dressed to the nines, I can’t imagine. It was the hottest night and the hottest day by far, just by luck of the draw, since I’ve been here. It was melting weather. I was wearing a tank top and what turned out to be heavier shorts than I ever thought could be possible. Yet, when I’ve worn more or less, it kind of doesn’t matter. Think of it this way: Who’s in better shape to be uncomfortable, me or a triathloner? Probably the triathloner.
The Insider: Speaking of the humidity in Beijing, how is your hair doing? Did you take any products or tips from the “Project Runway” experts in the Tresemme Hair Salon?
Ms. Zalaznick: I have to tell you, the newfangled thing called the relaxer is a run-don’t-walk-to-your-local [salon] thing. I am spreading the gospel at Bravo. I tried to do it before I left. I got to a couple of folks. But when you see us all, you’re going to say “Damn, their hair looks good these days!”
It is absolutely humid, there’s no two ways about it, but I have to say it is not like New York in August. The word “oppressive” does come to mind. I’m not trying to make light of it, but it’s a different kind of air. Everything is bigger, and it’s really, really, really hot, but the humidity level has nothing on New York City. Nothing on it.
The Insider: Can you say, “Either you’re in or you’re out” in Chinese?
Ms. Zalaznick: Ummmmm, no. But my clever daughter [Ada], who was in immersion Mandarin camp for two weeks here before I got here—it is one of the all-time experiences to have your very young daughter helping you to translate in Chinese restaurants and Chinese taxis. I’ll have to get her to think about that one.