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Gail Berman in Conversation with Lucy HoodCTM Roundtable Highlights Berman’s Thoughts on Theater, Television and Digital MediaDecember 2, 2011 • by News at Marshall
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The USC Institute for Communication Technology Management hosted its fall 2011 Executive Roundtable, which brought together 100 industry leaders in technology, telecommunications, data and content, as well as numerous students from the USC Marshall School of Business, USC School of Cinematic Arts, and USC Viterbi School of Engineering, on Oct. 26. CTM Executive Director Lucy Hood sat down with Gail Berman for the closing keynote. Following is an edited version of their conversation.
Lucy Hood: We have someone I’m very excited to have join us here at USC CTM, Gail Berman, who is an extraordinary creative visionary. She would not describe herself that way, and if I say the word guru she’ll probably punch me, but frankly, she is. I had the great pleasure of working with Gail when she was President of Fox Network. She has also been President at Paramount Studios. She produced her first Broadway hit, "Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat," when she was 23 and has had several other career successes as the creative force behind "Buffy." Gail really has created her own revolution in the past five years by starting her own company, BermanBraun, with her partner Lloyd Braun.
Gail, you’ve had a fascinating progression in your career. Was it all clear as you were doing it?
Gail Berman: My career started very quickly after I graduated from the University of Maryland. I partnered with [Susan Rose] shortly after I graduated from college to produce a show called "Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat." At the time, the show had had very little presence in the United States; basically it was a failure and an unknown property here. It ultimately ran nine months at Ford’s Theater when nothing had ever run nine months there. Eventually the show moved to Broadway and ran for two and a half years there. Producing became my life for almost a decade.
Later, I was presented with an opportunity to be one of the individuals to start a new cable company called the Comedy Channel. I was really frightened after I’d made this decision to move on because I carried around a lot of baggage as someone who had succeeded at one thing. My husband gave me some great advice; I’ll pass it along to you. He said, "Why don’t you try it and leave your posters at home?" It was about leaving your posters—past successes—at home and moving forward, and so much of life is about that, and so much of business life is about that.
LH: I just have to mention what was on a few of the posters that would come along later.
GB: At Sandollar, we did "Buffy," "Angel," "The Margaret Cho Show" — that was the first Asian American starring in a weekly television series. At Regency, we did "Malcolm in the Middle," "Roswell" and "The Bernie Mac Show." From there I went to Fox Broadcasting Company in 2000.
LH: Tell us about the scene when you arrived at Fox Broadcasting.
GB: Our biggest problem was morale. It had a lot to do with the fact that the network was called the fourth network. I took a lot of criticism early on when I decided that we were going to be the No. 1 network. I needed to convince not only myself but everyone around me that this was an attainable goal.
LH: You obviously did it. You took shows like "24," which became a big hit, but was a crazy drama people weren’t sure about. You emerged as a beloved and incredibly respected leader. People looked to you for your creative vision and the change in morale. How did you do it?
GB: You have to work hard at it and you have to get lucky. It’s two things. It’s motivating a group of people to say, "I am the most creative guy in the room and I’m going to inspire other people to be the most creative guy in the room." So when a project like "24" comes in the door, I’m not necessarily the first person who’s going to hear about it. The first person who does hear about it is empowered to say, "I’m not going to be crazy for bringing an idea like this up in the bigger group meeting.”
It was also about changing the model of how television works; television was a repeat model. There was a new business model emerging in real time: people were participating in a television experience on their own time, not as a scheduled television experience but a content experience on their own time.
LH: You have created a new content company for this new century.
GB: We are challenged every day to figure out what to do and how to monetize it. The way we chose to go into the digital space [at BermanBraun] was very different from the way most of our colleagues were thinking about. I had the advantage of having a partner who had spent two years at Yahoo prior to the launch of our company.
What we tried to do was think about it in three different ways: Traditional television and content for that medium, content for film, and most significantly, content in the digital space. How would we do what everyone else seemed to not understand, how would we do the fundamental things that we understood in the traditional media space?
About three years ago we launched Wonderwall, the celebrity brand for MSN. Last month it had about 850 million page views, so it is a very significant success story. Now that we have a Trojan horse that’s getting a lot of traffic, now I can start to create programming – I can put video into it and I can monetize the video.
Glow, which was our second offering and is in the women’s lifestyle area, also for MSN, now has video offerings inside it. We partnered with a company called Hachette, the owner at the time of Elle, Elle Décor, Woman’s Day and a variety of publications. They were struggling in the Internet space; they couldn’t figure out how to take their fantastic brands and put them in a working model online, and so together we created a new brand. Glow will celebrate its two-year anniversary in April.
How do we take this creative model and creative business we’ve built and move it where technology is going? We have to be as flexible as the marketplace is in terms of where technology is going and be looking at content that’s always moving forward.
LH: Many people thought mobile wasn’t viable—that there was no money in it. But you were always adventurous…. [The mobile initiatives you spearheaded] turned out to make hundreds of millions of dollars for Fox Network and launched the mobile content business and interactivity in this country. That was a big, bold decision….
GB: It was also exhilarating. To do what we said we were going to do, to actually do it. It took so many great people – I’m so proud of the team of extraordinary people that we had.
About the USC Marshall School of Business
Consistently ranked among the nation's premier schools, USC Marshall is internationally recognized for its emphasis on entrepreneurship and innovation, social responsibility and path-breaking research. Located in the heart of Los Angeles, one of the world's leading business centers and the U.S. gateway to the Pacific Rim, Marshall offers its 5,700-plus undergraduate and graduate students a unique world view and impressive global experiential opportunities. With an alumni community spanning 123 countries, USC Marshall students join a worldwide community of thought leaders who are redefining the way business works.