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.)

Nancy Dubuc | A&E Networks

At age 42, Nancy Dubuc is accomplished enough and young enough that almost everybody handicaps her as the next generation’s Les Moonves. Provided, that is, there is such a thing in TV’s next generation.

And yet her style and the style of television’s leading man are diametric opposites. Moonves is Mr. Smooth; Dubuc is Ms. Impatience. Moonves is smoke (and effervescence); Dubuc a kind of frightening clarity.

She is a woman, she will have you know, with too much to do—so tell her quickly, concisely, and go down an orderly list. A former Boston University varsity rower, her rhythm is still about dogged and precise strokes. Goals and focus.

As chief programmer at A&E, she transformed a home for the aged—exemplified by the wheezy scripted pick-up Murder She Wrote—into a world of sometimes trashy but effective reality fare like Dog the Bounty Hunter and Growing Up Gotti.

She took over programming for History as well in 2007 and helped it raise ad sales by as much as 50 percent. More tellingly, while the channel’s overall audience got younger, History managed to actually grow it in all relevant demographic categories. Today Dubuc is aiming for a threepeat, charged with a turnaround of the slumping women’s network, Lifetime. Once the top-rated channel among women 18-49, it’s now in danger of falling out of the top 20. Within months of adding Lifetime to her plate, she had lined up 30 reality projects, seven scripted options, and a handful of movies in development.


Lauren Zalaznick |


Lauren Zalaznick talks a lot. The 48-year-old NBC executive peppers everything with opinions, comments, observations, gossip. She’s smart, funny, neurotic, and personal. How to fix NBC’s Telemundo, which she now runs, merges with where she’s taking her next family vacation and how she’s going to get to the airport. It’s a worldview that is both businesslike and direct, and scattered and messy.

Barry Diller, for whom she worked when she served as president of the now-defunct TRIO channel at USA Networks, is said not to have liked her at all. That makes sense. The controlled, methodical, million-miles up Diller must have been unsettled by Zalaznick’s franticness and intensity; and, possibly, the presence of her family life, her three children and husband, whom she is always working to accommodate.

Yet, Zalaznick is a successful media executive of the moment—and, arguably, Diller is not. That may be because, unlike many of the men who have made big media careers, Zalaznick functions comfortably in a little-hit world. Part of the Brown media mafia, her early career started at VH1 and included producing indie films. After TRIO, she took on Bravo, where she turned reality TV into an almost classy genre (Top Chef and Project Runway)—morphing Bravo into one of the most successful upscale television destinations. Her portfolio, including Telemundo,  is now one of the largest in the industry.

Abbe Raven | A&E Networks

It is curious that a teaching background, for many years the only career choice for so many women, has proved so helpful to a new generation of women climbing the corporate television ladder. A&E Networks CEO Abbe Raven started out in front of the blackboard. In the early 1980s, the now 58-year-old Raven (she and her attorney husband have an adult son) joined the backwater cable business at the even-deeper backwater network known as Daytime and Arts. When D&A split into two channels in 1984, Lifetime and A&E, Raven went with the latter, where she became, in addition to a savvy programmer, an exceptional corporate player—quite a helpful skill considering that A&E was owned by three byzantine corporations: ABC (which would be acquired by Disney), NBC (which would be acquired by GE), and Hearst.

In a world of difficult men, her unpretentious demeanor (“don’t say school marmish, but, OK, school marmish,” says a colleague), stabilizing presence, and quiet authority (“more a school principal,” added the same colleague) has helped keep A&E an independent entity rather than a contested partnership over the years. Profits help too. Raven, with Nancy Dubuc working for her, began the turnaround around at the narrow-cast A&E with an unteacher-like ratings strategy: reality shows and syndication rights to The Sopranos.

Oprah Winfrey | OWN

Oprah may be not just the most powerful woman in television, but the most powerful woman in the country, helping elect a president and to change the very nature of how Americans talk to each other. Her stature and influence comes not just from being a consummate performer, but also from being a remarkable businesswoman—understanding the business of television in particular.

We’re all well versed in the legend of Oprah Gail Winfrey: the horrific, even Dickensian childhood in 1950s rural Mississippi, the escape from that life to will herself into a radio job, and then into television. There she honed what became the signature Oprah style that made her into a confidant for the 20 million-plus women who were her daily television audience at its peak. In the course of her run as the host of the most-watched talk show in TV history, Oprah served as the nation’s confessor; she even made books relevant again.

The show that made this happen fades out on May 25, and Oprah, $2.6 billion richer, will decamp to her Discovery-supported cable startup OWN. She’s already shown her power there in a very direct way in her response to low ratings and advertiser unease. This month she sacked network CEO Christina Norman and reduced original programming. While Discovery has poured some $250 million into the project, execs are already begging off earlier predictions that OWN would be profitable by year’s end.


Nina Tassler | Jo Ann Ross

On one wall of Jo Ann Ross’ corner office at Black Rock hangs a black-and-white photo of a ’50s-era CBS upfront presentation, taken when the male sales bosses pitched male clients from the stage of the old Trans-Lux Theatre on 52nd St. Opposite is a framed poster of Winning Colors, who in 1988 became only the third filly to win the Kentucky Derby.

The juxtaposition is perfect, framing a gentle rebuke across the decades, as the caption makes clear: “How does it feel to leave the boys behind?”

Ross was doing that even before CBS chief Les Moonves broke precedent and named her to the top network sales job back in ’02. She had already been the first female executive to spearhead a broadcaster’s Olympic ad sales business for CBS’ coverage of the 1994 Lillehammer and 1998 Nagano Winter Games. In her maiden upfront as the CBS sales chief in 2003, Ross was able to push through an 18 percent CPM increase while generating some $2.2 billion in advance commitments for the network. Media buyers had gotten a blunt reminder of her aggressiveness at the beginning of the network’s presentation that year: In a short film that cast her as a mob assassin, Ross whacked predecessor Joe Abruzzese.

“Joey had been basically an icon here at CBS, so I had to clear the air,” Ross recalls. “Because Joey and every other man in the business will tell you his favorite movie is The Godfather, I figured I’d start off my first official upfront with a bang. So, I killed Joey.”

While Moonves also hammed it up in the clip, playing the mob boss who approved the killing because of Abruzzese’s move to Discovery Networks, the CBS chief was dead serious when he named Ross as Abruzzese’s replacement. Along with her Olympics sales record, Ross’ strategy to sell the new reality series Survivor particularly impressed Moonves. In 2000, she and Abruzzese barnstormed across the country with Survivor creator Mark Burnett, lining up sponsors to defray production costs well before a frame of the show was ever shot.

Ross has become “incredibly trusted by Les Moonves,” says a television executive who knows the CBS team well, because of how tightly run her operation is. “Strictly business,” the executive observes, almost quaintly so. “It’s all a bit like the 1950s.”

The 57-year-old Ross, who lives on the Upper East Side with her anesthesiologist  husband, Michael Zelman, is joined at the hip with L.A.-based CBS Entertainment president Nina Tassler. The latter, a transplanted New Yorker, all but single-handedly established CBS as the home of the procedural in 1999 when she landed the rights to CSI, buying the pilot for the original series from producer Anthony Zuiker before he even left the pitch meeting.

Industry observers sometimes refer to Ross and Tassler as Thelma and Louise (in fact, Tassler was a roommate of Geena Davis, who played Thelma, at Boston University in the late ’70s). “It’s not so much [that] they finish each other’s sentences,” says one national TV buyer. “Nina is a world-class talker. Once she gets started on a train of thought, you just sit back and enjoy the ride. But their timing, it’s like a metronome. Nina can talk about a project as if she’s in a pitch meeting, and Jo Ann comes in on all the beats. It’s a performance, but it feels unrehearsed.”

As broadcast’s longest running sales content battery, Ross and Tassler offer clients familiarity; it also helps to be leading the business in total eyeballs and the 25-54 demographic. “Jo Ann and I have been working together like this for a long time, and there’s a lot to be said for that kind of longevity, especially when so many other networks are going out with new faces,” Tassler says. Indeed, for the first time in 21 years, there’s been turnover at the top of Fox’s sales effort; meanwhile, a pair of relative newcomers will introduce the 2011-12 programming slates at this week’s respective ABC and NBC events.

Buyers regard the 53-year-old Tassler, who has two children with husband Jerry Levine, a TV director and former actor, as the preeminent upfront presenter for giving clients insight into the factors that led to the creation of the final slate. She is also appreciated for her takes on how CBS stands to fare in head-to-head competition, a practice that has fallen out of favor at the other networks.

“Nina’s role in the upfront and with our advertisers cannot be understated,” Ross says. “She comes here for program development in March, and then we bring her out to sales meetings in Chicago and Detroit. Every year she knocks it out of the park.”

Tassler claims her own success in the partnership with Ross extends back to a childhood fascination with the tube, when as a girl in Washington Heights her nights frequently ended with the then-common local affiliate sign-off. “I always hated that moment, with the flag and the Star Spangled Banner,” Tassler recalls. “It meant that my day of TV was over, that it was done . . . and I’d have to wait for morning for it to come back on.”

Ross acknowledges there are few holes in a CBS schedule which may have no more than five hours of new programming this fall. “Let’s put it this way: We know how to put on hits,” she says. “The network is very stable. But that doesn’t mean my job is easy.” Moonves’ repeated push for double-digit CPM gains may saddle the sales team with extra burdens heading into the upfront, although Ross casts the demands as cheerleading: “I’m thrilled that he gets up there in front of investors and says what he does. There’s no pressure at all.”

And this year, at least, there won’t be, if the analysts are right. Wall Street sees CBS commanding CPM hikes of between 12 percent-13 percent, for a total upfront score of at least $3 billion. —Anthony Crupi

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