Most powerful women in television

Oct 14, 2002  •  Post A Comment

FCC commissioner
Power base: As one of four of the nation’s sitting FCC commissioners, Ms. Abernathy plays a major role in shaping the regulatory ground rules for the broadcast and cable TV industries. She’s a deregulatory-minded Republican who worked for several years as a top Federal Communications Commission staffer, a telecommunications industry executive and a private-sector attorney before President George W. Bush named her to one of the agency’s top slots in May of last year. Some observers believe she could be promoted to the agency’s chairmanship if Michael Powell, who currently holds that post, leaves. “There’s never been a female FCC chairman,” said a well-placed source. “This presents a historic opportunity for the Bush administration to appoint a capable and extraordinarily personable Republican woman to that post.”
Challenges: If Ms. Abernathy is truly interested in getting reappointed after her current term expires in June 2004, she will have to walk a moderate course on controversial issues, because just one alienated senator could put a hold on her nomination.
Linda Bell Blue
Executive producer, “Entertainment Tonight,” “Hot Ticket”
Power base: Ms. Blue is currently serving her eighth year as executive producer of syndication’s top-ranked newsmagazine strip, Paramount’s “ET,” which continues to hold strong in the ratings. “Hot Ticket” is entering its second season as a weekly review series. This past season, she was also executive producer of the highly rated ABC TV reunion special “Entertainment Tonight Presents: Laverne & Shirley Together Again,” which revisited the classic sitcom with stars Penny Marshall and Cindy Williams and marked the first time “Entertainment Tonight” branched out with a prime-time network special.
Challenges: First Leeza Gibbons leaves, then Julie Moran opts out. Who is being groomed to fill Mary Hart’s prized shoes?
Gail Berman
President of entertainment, Fox Broadcasting Co.
Power base: A beloved producer in the Hollywood and Broadway creative communities for almost two decades before taking her current post at Fox two years ago, Ms. Berman seems to have become a darling of the nation’s TV critics. Lauded for her development of such critically acclaimed Fox series as the drama “24” and the comedies “The Bernie Mac Show” and “Malcolm in the Middle” (the last of which she shepherded as the one-time head of Regency Television), she is still waiting for broader audience adulation–in the form of ratings. All three series have experienced varying degrees of success in the young-adult and upscale demos, but the “big tent” show–a la NBC’s “The West Wing” and “Friends”–is something Fox is going to need to topple the Peacock Network from its perch atop the adults 18 to 49 ratings.
To start the just-launched 2002-03 season, Ms. Berman has again corralled the critics with slickly produced dramas such as “John Doe” and “Fastlane,” but ad buyers and industry watchers are still waiting for Fox to hit ratings overdrive. A historical handicap to Fox’s early season starts are the pricey Major League Baseball playoffs, which have provided less-than-expected promotional oomph and interrupted the fluid rollout of Ms. Berman’s new series offerings.
Challenges: She must be wary of committing plum time slots to marquee producers–such as giving Friday’s opening berth to Joss Whedon (“Buffy the Vampire Slayer”), whose “Firefly” sci-fi drama is steadily slipping in the ratings. She’s also counting on prolific producer David E. Kelley to create a Monday lead-out hit from “Boston Public” with the upcoming “girls club,” which has been derided by critics as “`Ally McBeal’ with roommates.”
Carolyn Bivens
President and chief operating officer, Initiative Media North America
Power base: Ms. Bivens, who chairs Initiative Media’s executive committee and oversees all client accounts, heads a company with 21 offices across North America, more than 1,000 employees and 2001 billings in excess of $10.1 billion. IMNA, the successor to Western International Media, is part of IM Worldwide (with more than $20.1 billion in 2001 billings), which in turn is part of the Interpublic Group of Cos.
Challenges: In the tight-knit world of media planning and buying, where most of the senior players have known each other for decades, Ms. Bivens is a relative newcomer. She joined IMNA in mid-2000 from USA Today, where she was a member of the newspaper’s original launch team and designed and managed its circulation marketing programs. Will that newspaper-heavy background matter in television? Perhaps in the more rock-ribbed, expansive and clubby marketplaces of the past it was less about what you knew than who you knew, but today’s tighter dollars make it less likely that anything counts but results and the bottom line.
Carole Black
President and CEO, Lifetime Entertainment Services
Power base: Under Ms. Black, the network has surged from sixth to first place in the household cable ratings, making its mark with such original Sunday night series as “The Division” and “Strong Medicine” as well as with strong original movies that attract top female Hollywood talent. She’s also done well by doing good, acting on her sense that viewers want to feel a personal connection with the Lifetime brand. The network’s advocacy initiatives include campaigns to stop violence against women and to increase breast cancer awareness and affordable access to quality childcare. Most recently Lifetime collected more than 50,000 signatures in support of national anti-rape legislation.
Challenges: The deal is done on her new three-year Lifetime contract, but does that mean she’s staying the course or will she be tempted by other offers and trial balloons that constantly cross her path? The persistent buzz also holds that Ms. Black is going on to bigger and better things at Disney/ABC, but these days one has to wonder, would that be a smart move?
Karey Burke
Executive VP, prime-time series development, NBC Entertainment
Power base: Ms. Burke, a 12-year program development executive at NBC dating back to the halcyon days of Brandon Tartikoff, has flourished in the Peacock’s high-pressure, high-expectations ratings environment. This season has been no different. Since being promoted to oversee prime-time series development in 1994, Ms. Burke’s fingerprints have been traced to a string of hit dramas, including “Crossing Jordan,” “Ed” and a pair of “Law & Order” franchises. This season “Boomtown” and “American Dreams” have given an early jolt to NBC’s Sunday schedule. However, in the comedy department, which Ms. Burke briefly oversaw from May 1999 to April 2000, such efforts as “Just Shoot Me,” “3rd Rock From the Sun” and “Scrubs” have or had been reliable ratings players, but NBC also had such recent miscues as “Emeril,” “Inside Schwartz” and “Three Sisters.”
Challenges: If this is indeed NBC’s last season of “Friends,” short of offering the half-dozen castmates salaries equivalent to the gross domestic product of New Jersey next season, Ms. Burke and her team have to hope something else can hold up the Peacock’s nearly two-decades-old “Must-See TV” ratings dominance on Thursday nights. So far “Scrubs” and “Good Morning, Miami” have proved no better than the ill-fated “Inside Schwartz” in retaining ratings from their lofty lead-in. NBC’s comedy miscues–don’t forget “Jesse” and “Union Square”–may finally be catching up with the network.
Marcy Carsey and Caryn Mandabach
Partners, Carsey Werner-Mandabach
Power base: As two-thirds of one of the most successful independent television studios still around, having produced such series as “The Cosby Show,” “Roseanne” and “3rd Rock From the Sun,” the team continues to score with “That ’70s Show,” which made a successful debut in syndication this season, and Fox’s “Grounded for Life.” In addition, the team is experiencing Carsey-Werner-Mandabach’s first foray into first-run syndication with “Livin’ Large.”
Challenges: Studio consolidation
has made life difficult for independent distributors. Pesky rumors (thus far unsubstantiated) are flying that CWM may be reconsidering its syndication sales division.
Donna Friedman
Executive VP, Kids’ WB
Power base: Since coming over from leading 24-hour kids cable network Nickelodeon in 1999, Ms. Friedman has raided the Japanese anime market to bring hit cartoons “Pokemon” and “Yu-Gi-Oh!” to Kids’ WB. In turning Kids’ WB into a top-ranked Saturday morning destination for boys 6 to 11 and kids 6 to 11–among all networks–this young season, Ms. Friedman has adeptly used the Japanese series as springboards to launch such American-made hits as “Jackie Chan Adventures,” “What’s New Scooby-Doo?” “!Mucha Lucha!” and “Ozzy & Drix.”
Challenges: A protracted renewal process with licensor 4Kids Entertainment (whose Fox Box now competes with Kids’ WB) to retain “Yu-Gi-Oh!” may force Ms. Friedman to keep a careful eye on holding down future programming costs and guaranteeing a flow of other promising anime projects.
Mindy Herman
President and CEO, E! Networks
Power base: Ms. Herman took over a threadbare little cable service that had been all but swept under the red carpet and turned it into a major Hollywood player, a fixture on the award show scene and a factor in any studio or network publicity campaign.
Challenges: Has any network ever been as reviled as E! has been by critics of “The Anna Nicole Show”? If they had their way Ms. Herman would be serving time in Political Correctness Re-education Jail and Anna Nicole would be sentenced to nonstop Pilates classes and a diet of (whole grain) bread and (Evian) water. “Anna’s” ratings down? Sure, but it’s still the highest-rated series on the network. Exploitative? Of course, but where’s the equivalent vitriol for “The Osbournes,” “Dog Eat Dog” and “The Bachelor”? “A lot of young women say, `You know what? She’s big and she’s outrageous and she’s full of life; she does whatever the heck she wants to do and she’s made it. You go, girl!”’ Ms. Herman said unapologetically. “The fact that she’s a plus-size woman has freaked out a lot of the men, but doesn’t trouble the women that are watching.”
Nancy Josephson
Co-president, International Creative Management
Power base: As the first woman to reach, in 1987, the senior management echelon of Hollywood’s testosterone-driven talent agency business, Ms. Josephson has proved that it helps to have “Friends” in high places. Ms. Josephson’s background in business management and jurisprudence played an integral part in getting the producers of NBC’s top-rated “Friends” on the same page with the cast to return for the current season–its ninth and, some say, its final. If the six castmates do return for another season, expect Ms. Josephson–a Brown University economics graduate with a Harvard Law School degree–to play a lead negotiating role in ironing out a new contract renewal for the “Friends” producers. ICM’s off-network windfall doesn’t end with “Friends”–the agency also repped Fox’s “The Simpsons” for 13 seasons.
Challenges: If this season is the last for “Friends” Ms. Josephson could face an interesting challenge in negotiating on behalf of Bright, Kaufman and Crane Productions a potential spinoff series to hold the coveted 8 p.m. Thursday time slot on NBC. Ms. Josephson’s future negotiations with NBC to keep the producer troika in the fold–for either the original or a spinoff series–will likely be the biggest piece of business at any network next season.
Susan Lyne
President, ABC Entertainment
Power base: Ms. Lyne, previously ABC’s longtime head of movies and miniseries, brought the word “event” back to broadcast television with such critically lauded ratings hits as “Life With Judy Garland: Me and My Shadows,” “Anne Frank” and “Oprah Winfrey Presents: Tuesdays With Morrie.” Ms. Lyne’s biggest challenge since taking over ABC Entertainment in January 2002 is reversing ABC’s two-year ratings funk. Well-liked for her longtime links to the Hollywood and New York creative communities, Ms. Lyne has had early success planting family comedies “8 Simples Rules” and “Life With Bonnie” on Tuesday evenings. But audience response to the avant-garde dramas “Push, Nevada” and “That Was Then,” on Thursday and Friday, respectively, has been muted. Ms. Lyne scored major points in luring Dick Wolf to produce a midseason retelling of the storied, mass-appealling “Dragnet” serial while enticing her long-form producer friends Craig Zadan and Neil Meron to helm the father-and-son archaeology drama “Veritas,” due early next year.
Challenges: While everyone realizes it will take time to turn around ABC’s sagging fortunes, Ms. Lyne will have to be mindful of shareholder pressures on parent The Walt Disney Co. The Mouse House, led by beleaguered Chairman Michael Eisner, is under the investor microscope–and the first place they’re going to look for a savior is at ABC.
Janice Marinelli
President, Buena Vista Television
Power base: Ms. Marinelli took charge of Disney’s syndication unit, rejuvenated “Live With Regis and Kelly” and provided solid starts to strips “The Wayne Brady Show” and “Who Wants to Be a Millionaire.” “My Wife and Kids” is poised for off-network sales.
Challenges: The company has had more misses than hits in recent years with series such as “Iyanla” and “Housecalls.” “Live” is the only Buena Vista veteran first-run strip still on the airwaves.
Judy McGrath
President, MTV Networks Music Group
Power base: Ms. McGrath, an MTV veteran whose service there goes all the way back to the Warner Amex Satellite Entertainment days of the early ’80s, grew up with the music channel and is credited with promotional and programming innovations that include the “Choose or Lose” political awareness campaign and “Road Rules,” among others. Currently, she is responsible for MTV, MTV2, VH1, CMT and all of the company’s digital and online music services. In other words, credit her too for overseeing the strategic direction that led directly to the Beverly Hills door of “The Osbournes.”
Challenges: Music aficionados may still grouse that MTV sold out, but tell that to the legions of new viewers Ozzy and his pixilated clan brought to the flagship network. Still, Ms. McGrath has signed off on those big checks that the Osbourne family will be cashing in the new season. And it’s also still an open question whether the reality-sitcom that was a critical darling this past summer, when the focus was on hilarious minutia like pet psychology, can pull it off again in a second season that will touch on fundamental matters of life and death.
Judith McHale
President and chief operating officer, Discovery Communications
Power base: As president and chief operating officer since 1995 Ms. McHale has overseen the worldwide proliferation of the Discovery brand. On her watch Discovery launched Animal Planet and Discovery Health (as well as several digital channels), allied with the BBC and The New York Times and created the nationwide chain of more than 150 Discovery Channel stores. Today Discovery operates in more than 155 countries and territories and reaches more than 650 million subscribers. Ms. McHale also gets the credit for creating Discovery’s work/life initiative, providing a workplace at Discovery that has been recognized as among the best in the nation for working women.
Challenges: Discovery has embraced the digital future, particularly high-definition TV. Ultimately, expansion into the digital universe is certainly the right move, but is this the right time? And will the company’s four shareholders (Liberty Media Corp., Cox Communications, Advance/Newhouse Communications and founder John Hendricks) stay the course, or will tough economic times make Discovery an asset that’s less tempting to grow than to sell?
Pat Mitchell
President and CEO, Public Broadcasting Service
Power base: “Keep the best and reinvent the rest” is the motto of Ms. Mitchell as she tries to reinvigorate PBS. As the first producer to head w
hat often seems as much a bureaucracy as a programming service, she came to the job in March 2000 knowing how to make all kinds of television (she has been a network correspondent, a syndicated talk show host and a documentary maker) and all kinds of friends (actor Robert Redford, former boss Ted Turner and former Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev are among the members of her fan club). She has made PBS more accessible to potential contributors (filmmakers can submit proposals online) and more reflective of the melting-pot audience (when CBS did not pick up Gregory Nava’s “American Family,” Ms. Mitchell did). Ms. Mitchell also embraced old reliables, asking Bill Moyers to be a year-round contributor to “Now” and dusting off Ken Burns’ landmark series “The Civil War” for another prime-time run.
Challenges: Internet traffic may be up, but PBS ratings are off, indicating the PBS audience, even as it is losing interest in the old, doesn’t want anything too new. Ditto the dustup that resulted from Ms. Mitchell’s suggestion that Maryland Public Television freshen up “Wall $treet Week.” There were no winners. Her attempt to rearrange the prime-time schedule didn’t stick. And underwriters don’t throw around feel-good money the way they used to.
Sue Naegle
Partner/co-head of UTA television department
Power base: “The Bernie Mac Show” and “Smallville” are just the latest series on Ms. Naegle’s resume to firmly entrench themselves as hits, while critic’s darling “Six Feet Under” continues HBO’s force in the programming game. She is one of the youngest partners at a major agency.
Challenges: The departure of former partner Chris Harbert puts even more of the spotlight on her moves.
Dawn Ostroff
President of entertainment, UPN
Power base: With Ms. Ostroff the newly appointed queen of programming at the netlet, UPN enjoyed its best May sweeps performance in five years among adults 18 to 34. She is charged with all creative aspects of UPN’s operations, including development, current programming, specials, movies and miniseries.
Challenges: Year-to-year losses of 33 percent among adults 18 to 49 and 24 percent among households after opening week could mean that the honeymoon is over for the former Lifetime executive. Ms. Ostroff must quickly determine whether to revamp or abandon sagging new dramas “Haunted” and “Twilight Zone.” Although Ms. Ostroff did not join UPN until last February, giving her little lead time to get involved in developing this season’s new shows, she faces a true test this spring to come up with strong new programming to revitalize an aging and sagging prime-time lineup.
Teya Ryan
VP and general manager, CNN/U.S.
Power base: Since joining CNN in 1990, this Emmy-winning former documentary maker has proved repeatedly that she knows how to size up changes in terrain and the players and personnel who can help her negotiate it. Ms. Ryan is indefatigable, which is only one of the reasons she was asked to take over CNN’s flagship operation after it fell into second place by allowing Fox News Channel to redefine and run away with the 24-hour news race. She doesn’t get distracted by incoming–or in-house–flak. She is not afraid to step on toes that stand in the way of her goal, whether it’s remaking CNN Headline News (up 8 percent in total-day viewership a little more than a year after she jazzed it up) or stemming the ratings erosion of the mothership (whose total-day viewership for the year to date is up 22 percent measured against last year). When the upper-echelon tribal council meets, she’s got the big boys’ vote of confidence.
Challenges: After the star-shopping spree that brought Connie Chung, Paula Zahn and Aaron Brown onboard at CNN–and Lou Dobbs back into the fold–and with the still-slumping ad market and another round of tensions building in the Middle East, the purse strings are so tight that AOL Time Warner and Disney are rethinking the heretofore unthinkable: the merger of ABC News and CNN.
Donna Salvatore
CEO, MediaVest USA
Power base: Ms. Salvatore, a 24-year veteran of the agency business, is one of the many executives on this list who don’t like to think of themselves as women executives, just execs, thank you very much. “My focus has always been on getting the job done,” she said, “and less on whether you’re male or female.” Has being a woman helped or hindered her in her job? “To a certain extent women are treated differently,” she said, “but different doesn’t always translate into a negative. People are treated differently for a lot of reasons besides being female.” At MediaVest the clients she oversees include Procter & Gamble, Coca-Cola and Kraft Foods. Moreover, Ms. Salvatore is one of the visionaries of the cross-platform deal and is generally regarded as the agency power behind the precedent-setting Viacom-P&G deal of 2001. That deal was renewed for a second year. “I’m a strong believer in clients’ parlaying their media clout into broader marketing solutions via the cross-platform deal format,” she said. “I think we have a terrific opportunity to evolve this area, to establish some very differentiating marketing programs.”
Challenges: MediaVest is being acquired by Publicis Groupe, and any acquisition has uncertainty. With analysts’ viewing with alarm the sputtering synergies at such media giants as AOL Time Warner and Vivendi Universal, cross-platform deals may be out of favor … for now.
Anne Sweeney
President, ABC Cable Networks Group and Disney Channel Worldwide
Power base: Ms. Sweeney’s management mandate ranges from the Disney Channel to Toon Disney and SoapNet and from the kids programming on ABC and ABC Family to Disney’s equity interests in Lifetime Entertainment Services, A&E Television Networks and E! Networks. A good part of the responsibility for protecting and managing one of the best-known brand names on the planet rests squarely with Ms. Sweeney.
Challenges: If ABC can’t manage the climb back out of the prime-time ratings valley of death and if Disney’s corporate balance sheet continues to be perceived by important shareholders as a vale of tears, a biblical flood may come that could sweep away the old princes in the once-Magic Kingdom. Perhaps the Wrath of Roy and Stanley could extend as far as the Kingdom of Cable, but then again that could be when the heirs of Uncle Walt might turn to Auntie Anne. In a less apocalyptic scenario, Ms. Sweeney continues right along, despite larger corporate travails, managing and expanding Disney’s global television businesses, including the company’s majority interest in the international Fox Kids Channel. “The big danger is fear,” she said of the current climate. “If I’ve heard one person I’ve heard 50 people blame the economy for their own bad decisions. The first thing you have to do is look inside and say, `Should I be approaching this differently?”’
Nancy Tellem
President, CBS Entertainment
Power base: She has her finger on the pulse of not only the Gen X set but the Geritol crowd as well. A soft-spoken, steadying influence who prefers to share the limelight with CBS President and CEO Leslie Moonves, Ms. Tellem has positioned the Eye Network for a second year of continuing young-demo ratings growth, while holding core older-adult viewers. Early into the 2002-03 season, the four-year entertainment head has made firming up the 10 p.m. closing prime-time hour a major part of her focus. Ms. Tellem successfully launched “CSI: Miami” as an across-the-board Monday ratings winner this fall, while setting up “Without a Trace” to eat away at NBC’s once dominant Thursday closer, “ER.” At the same time, Ms. Tellem’s supervision of CBS Productions, which has a co-production stake in more than three-quarters of CBS’s schedule, has made it the third-largest studio supplier in Hollywood–with 15 series on the prime-time schedules of CBS and sister Viacom-owned network, UPN.
Challenges: Despite CBS’s success in the drama arena, with a prime-time lineup stuffed with nine crime-related series, the network is going to need more than its hit Monday comedy l
ineup to ensure continued growth in the young-adult demos. The next major focus for Ms. Tellem is to ramp up development of new sitcoms that could be spread to other nights in the long term.
Sarah Timberman
President, programming, Universal Network Television
Power base: Coming off this year’s re-integration of Barry Diller’s Studios USA into Vivendi-owned Universal Studios, Ms. Timberman played a major role in re-establishing Universal Network Television as the largest independent studio supplier in Hollywood. For fall 2002, Universal has planted nine series on four broadcast networks, including NBC’s retro drama “American Dreams” and CBS’s “Robbery Homicide Division.” As custodians of the Dick Wolf-created trio of “Law & Order” dramas, Ms. Timberman, along with Universal Television Group Chairman David Kissinger, has spread the Wolf touch to ABC for a midseason retelling of the classic “Dragnet” series.
Challenges: The future of Universal’s re-established presence in Hollywood, outside of Ms. Timberman’s and Mr. Kissinger’s continuing contributions, will likely depend on how and whether debt-laden Vivendi decides to spin off or sell its entertainment assets. Despite the specter of future re-adjustments, the pair has put Universal on a strong future revenue track–possibly weighty enough for Mr. Diller to convince potential investors to back him in a prospective spinoff of Universal Entertainment.
Dana Walden
President, 20th Century Fox Television
Power base: Put Ms. Walden at the top of the queens-of-comedy list. For the fourth consecutive year, Ms. Walden, along with fellow President Gary Newman, has guided 20th Century Fox Television to becoming the largest Hollywood studio supplier in prime time, with 19 series total–airing on all six broadcast networks. But it is 20th’s unparalleled success in placing nine comedies–when the genre has been waning over the past five years–on the networks’ schedules, including such newcomers as CBS’s “Still Standing,” Fox’s “Cedric The Entertainer” and NBC’s “AUSA,” that stands out. Ms. Walden, a seven-year studio veteran who has a penchant for getting involved in the creative process, has also established sitcom hits “Reba,” “Yes, Dear,” “The Bernie Mac Show” (with Regency Television), “King of the Hill” and “The Simpsons.”
Challenges: Some high-profile co-production commitments with marquee producers, such as Joss Whedon on Fox’s “Firefly” and David E. Kelley on Fox’s upcoming “girls club,” are under increased pressure to pan out in the ratings. That’s because 20th, like the other major studios, has been looking to contain costs on expensive talent holding deals and is finding it more advantageous to make inroads with emerging producers such as Joel Surnow and Robert Cochran, the creators and executive producers of “24.”
Susan Whiting
President and CEO, Nielsen Media Research
Power base: Ms. Whiting, a Nielsen veteran who has come up through the ranks, now is charged with managing the company’s transition to the digital future. Her sterling attributes include unflappable calm, a twinkly graciousness and an encyclopedic grasp of the arcana of audience measurement.
Challenges: Sometimes the players in the TV game blame the referee. From the Personal People Meter to TiVo to the vexing questions of how to fairly reflect the many audiences in multilingual and multicultural America, involved in every storm roiling the television industry you are likely to find Nielsen. “This is a job with continuous challenge,” she said. “The things that I like doing are building businesses and projects and products. And that involves both the client side of understanding what they need and the internal side of building a team and developing people.”
Oprah Winfrey
Chairwoman, Harpo Inc., co-founder, Oxygen cable network
Power base: Re-signed with King World for two more years of “The Oprah Winfrey Show.” Meanwhile, Harpo launched spinoff strip “Dr. Phil” in September to gangbuster numbers, proving that the Oprah flock will hear and obey the Oprah edict. She received “Bob Hope Humanitarian Award” at the 2002 Emmys.
Challenges: “Dr. Phil” may have passed the litmus test when it comes to finding an initial audience, but without Ms. Winfrey as a buffer, can the series continue to thrive in the years ahead, especially after “Oprah” leaves the airwaves in 2006?