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.

Bonnie Hammer | USA Networks

Like her colleague Lauren Zalaznick, Bonnie Hammer joined USA Networks when it was run by Barry Diller. While Diller did not much care for the frenetic Zalaznick, he did like the organized Hammer, under whose diligent management USA became the jewel in the NBCU crown. Hammer is the opposite of a creative executive, more ship-shape and corporate than temperamental and envelope-pushing. But she has launched eight hits in eight tries, one of the most astounding records in television—and now the stuff of TV legend. (You can’t even blame her for the remake of Kojak, the one bomb of her tenure; that project was in the works well before she took the helm in 2004.)

Under Hammer’s leadership, USA has put together a winning streak of 18 consecutive quarters as cable’s most-watched entertainment network. And as ratings climb, so do revenues. In 2010, USA hauled in nearly $2 billion in operating income—all this while the NBC broadcast division bled out to the tune of $300 million. Hammer is as much marketer as producer, understanding her audience and building a network that is perfectly identified with it. She has claimed the women’s middle market—perhaps the most powerful consumer group in the nation.

Married with two kids, the 60-year-old Hammer grew up in Queens, the child of a Russian immigrant father who founded a company that made pens. She, like A&E’s Nancy Dubuc, is a BU grad who began in children’s programming—in her case, a seven-year stint at Boston PBS affiliate WGBH, where she worked on the likes Infinity Factory and Zoom.

Linda Yaccarino | Turner

In 2008, Linda Yaccarino, Turner Entertainment’s sales and marketing chief, shared her plan to crash the broadcast upfront party and pitch media buys just a few hours before CBS was due to announce its own fall schedule. During this same interview, she also eagerly discussed the Easter dinner menu she was getting ready to cook (lamb). Her conversation constantly mixes cooking and CPMs.

Yaccarino’s rise in the particularly male world of television sales also parallels the rise of women buyers. Media buying is now, overwhelmingly, a profession of women, mostly young women, many of whom have found a model in Yaccarino.

Her rise also tracks the spectacular growth of cable, the place where women could get a foothold back when the networks were still largely a man’s world.

Yaccarino has long exhorted clients to reevaluate the way they spend their marketing budgets—she hopes to do away with the two-tier, broadcast-trumps-cable upfront buying model altogether—even while Turner has steadily closed the pricing gap that separates it (and all the top-tier cable networks) from the Big Four broadcast outlets.

Today, CPMs for Turner originals like The Closer and Rizzoli & Isles are barely distinguishable from those of some broadcast shows. That’s why it’s no longer an aberration that for the fourth year in a row Turner will join the broadcasters’ upfront week.

The 47-year-old Yaccarino lives on Long Island’s North Shore with her husband and two children; the oldest just concluded his freshman year at college.

Anne Sweeney | Disney-ABC

Anne Sweeney took the classic entry-level path into television. As a student at College of New Rochelle in the late 1970s, the English major had a summer job as an ABC Studios page in Manhattan. Later, after getting a Master’s in Education at Harvard—Sweeney’s parents were also teachers—she began a 12-year career in kids television as a lieutenant at Nickelodeon for another former teacher, Gerry Laybourne.

It was Rupert Murdoch who convinced Sweeney to help spearhead the initial Fox TV foray into cable when he hired her to launch FX in 1993. Sweeney’s reputation was as consummate lieutenant and no-nonsense operator.  When Laybourne took the reins at Disney/ABC Cable in 1996, Sweeney rejoined her as president of Disney Channel. Success there helped propel Sweeney into the Disney-ABC CEO job in 2004. Having long avoided the limelight, Sweeney made a rare high-profile appearance this year on the prime-time Oscar stage to announce the renewal of ABC’s deal to air the Oscar broadcast. She’s also stepped forward with her husband to discuss life in a family with an autistic son.  And then there’s her relationship with best friend Maria Shriver; according to reports, Sweeney played a key role in cancelling History’s Kennedy miniseries after a personal appeal by Shriver’s cousin, Caroline Kennedy. (History parent A&E Networks is jointly owned by Disney, Comcast-NBC, and Hearst.)

Recommended articles