The 10 Most Powerful Women in Television

Actually, the most powerful people in television are women!

For 50 years, television was a man’s business. It was an industry about dominance—winners took all. Big egos, brilliant gamesmanship, great wealth characterized the men who shaped the business. They all played the role: Bill Paley, David Sarnoff, Leonard Goldenson, Roone Arledge, Michael Eisner, Barry Diller, Tom Murphy, Dan Burke, Larry Tisch, Bob Wright, Dick Ebersol, Mel Karmazin, Sumner Redstone, Jeff Zucker, and Les Moonves—perhaps the last real TV guy standing. Showmen and sharks.

And then the business started to change. Television networks, bought by larger companies, became more bureaucratic than egomaniacal. Then cable complicated and reduced the business. Television became more about nuance than reach. Gerry Laybourne, the school teacher who built Nickelodeon, became a model for television’s new leadership—sensibility defined the brand. Tom Freston may have been the boss at MTV, but Judy McGrath—who after 30 years has just left the network—shepherded the organization in a new television order where the team was all.

Television, once a monolithic business, became an archipelago of much smaller ones—less about big moves, sweeping pronouncements, and mega hits, more about fine-tuning, reduced budgets, and narrowed goals. Not that television still wasn’t making a lot of money—you just had to work harder for it. Face it: Much of the glamour was gone.

Oh, yes, and women watched it. Except for when it comes to sports, men are a difficult and unreliable audience. Women, who account for the vast amount of consumer goods purchases anyway, are the sweet spot audience—and if you served them right, an eager one.

There are still men in high positions in the television business. But now, in quite a short time—CBS appointed Jo Ann Ross, the first woman to run a network sales department, in 2002—there are lots of women in high places. They’re in programming, sales, and executive suites, rising faster than men. And, arguably, they are having a disproportionate, and even subversive, effect on television’s business culture—its style, its processes, its sense of itself, its management feng shui, if you will.

The scorecard is striking. After CBS’ Les Moonves, the two figures at the network that will take the lion’s share of this year’s upfront monies are Nina Tassler, head of entertainment, and Jo Ann Ross, the sales chief.

At NBCU, after Comcast’s Steve Burke, the heavyweights include Lauren Zalaznick and Bonnie Hammer.

At ABC, Anne Sweeney runs the show.

At A&E there is Abbe Raven, the CEO, and Nancy Dubuc, who runs programming.

At BET, Debra Lee is the CEO.

At Turner, Linda Yaccarino is the powerhouse of sales.

At OWN, there is Oprah herself (Christina Norman, OWN’s founding CEO, lost her job 10 days ago).

The archetypal male television executive is bluff, charming, full of bonhomie and indirection. He eschews conflict and details, picking your pocket as cleanly as it’s ever been picked. His art is the schmooze.

His female counterpart is focused, down-to-business, sometimes brusque, and, often—not least of all because home life invariably intrudes—slightly harried.

For the former, being a television executive is a lifestyle; for the latter, being a television executive is a to-do list.

One is a mogul, the other a manager.

One is larger than life, the other dealing with life.

Television’s ruling women are all coiffed and manicured—with evident personal shoppers—and yet, except for Oprah, lacking the plumage and grandiosity of the men who once had their jobs.

Those men ran sprawling empires; these women run tight ships—but with better margins.


Debra Lee | BET

BET is the most successful African-American business in the United States, and its CEO, Debra Lee, 56, is the highest-ranked African-American executive at BET parent company Viacom. And yet, as a telling illustration of the former Washington lawyer’s management style, BET, even in the age of Obama, has little profile as a cultural force—and little interest in being one. The network’s game is television, pure and simple. BET has seen its ad sales revenues skyrocket. Last year alone, it took in $320.4 million in sponsorship dollars, ensuring itself a spot among the top 25 richest cable networks.

Coming from Brown University and then Harvard Law School, Lee has run BET with a cold political savvy, navigating between ratings-friendly down-market fare (and a steady diet of dicey rap videos) and demands that the nation’s richest African-American media outlet become a greater social force.

Convening a group of high-profile African-American women like political consultant Donna Brazile and journalist Gwen Ifill for a roundtable discussion last year, Lee heard an earful about the need for the media to promote positive change in the black community by eliminating content that objectified women. Criticism of BET’s music videos and studio shows had already hit close to home—the Donna Rice Hughes-led anti-pornography group, Enough Is Enough, had engineered protests in front of Lee’s house for nearly six months. And yet her focus has remained resolutely on the network. For better or worse, and with a cool discipline, she has kept her ratings high and, somehow, survived difficult PR waters.

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