As television shows become less tied to the TV—and to the hour they're aired—the networks that thrive may be the ones that know how to answer this question: Do you corral your audience, or follow it wherever it wanders? We sat down to lunch with three of cable's most powerful women to discuss. Bravo president Frances Berwick and Comedy Central's Michele Ganeless ordered the salmon, but Animal Planet president Marjorie Kaplan went for the poached egg. Naturally, she doesn't eat meat.
Do you all talk often?
KAPLAN: Frances and I are in a drinking club together.
BERWICK: It's true. About once a quarter, this group of women who work in cable meet for drinks.
GANELESS: I need to go to that!
KAPLAN: It's like a floating crap game.
No men allowed?
KAPLAN: Well, they haven't been there yet.
In most sectors of show biz, women often hit a glass ceiling. And yet, lots of women run cable channels. Why is that?
BERWICK: Cable is still a young industry. Unlike the movie studios and broadcast television, which started before the era when a lot of women were working, cable has lots of women who've grown up [in the business] and hired other women.
GANELESS: I think that's it. When I started in 1991, Gerry Laybourne was one of the leaders of cable [as then president of Nickelodeon] and Judy McGrath was already a leader [at MTV]. There was never any question of "How does a woman break in?" Comedy Central is 20 years old. MTV—which is old—is 30.
KAPLAN: It's not to say that all women do and men don't, but there is data that show that men in business tend to have the hero's journey—you know, I will go into the battle. Women tend to be, I'm going to create a collective, and we will go into battle together. Again, it's overstating it, but I think that skill set, male or female, is useful in an industry that is full of innovation, that needs creativity, that needs to create an environment in which people feel and are expected to bring their best selves in to collaborate.
Cable thrives on connections between audience and brand. How do you identify that audience?
GANELESS: We just completed a study about how comedy is the ultimate connector for this generation. When we were young, you'd make a mix tape to show who you were. Now the funnier the clip that you post on Facebook, that you send around on Twitter, the more popular you are. If you post a clip of [web clip show] Tosh.0, it says something about you. One of the things [Daniel] Tosh does so well—that I think is largely responsible for his success—is connect with the audience. He tweets during his shows. He lets viewers send in clips, finish his tweets. It's really an interactive show.
BERWICK: That's essential now. We have all our talent do it. Producers are getting really, really receptive and open to it. People love more information. That's the big "aha." They don't want to talk to the network. They want to talk to each other and to the talent during the show and have that experience. It's virtual viewing parties.
GANELESS: It's so important in the age of DVRs and time shifting to have programming that is relevant and timely that people want to watch together and comment on in that moment. So Tosh is tweeting at 10 p.m. on Tuesday nights.
KAPLAN: I'm so jealous. We are in a learning process. We did a lot of research and we were saying, "Why is this channel that's been around for 10 years—and everybody says they love—not watched?" We found out it wasn't delivering on what viewers wanted from animal content. The reason they watch television isn't because of the animal content; people watch television because they want to see people. Seeing people in the context of animals gives you great storytelling, but it's different than saying, "Come and watch us because you have a pet." So the idea is how do you get out of your air-conditioned life and experience something that's a little more raw and real. That's the understanding that grew out of River Monsters, and that then leads to Hillbilly Handfishin'.
GANELESS: That's a great title.
KAPLAN: Hillbilly Handfishin' is like the No. 1 title on television!
BERWICK (smiling): Wait a minute. How do you prove that?
KAPLAN: I don't have to. I say it three times and it's true. Title is everything. In a world where people are scrolling through [programming guides] and when you never have enough marketing money, if you can put out a title and people go, "I've got to watch that . . ."
BERWICK: I don't know. Jersey Shore doesn't—
GANELESS: —It doesn't jump out at you.
KAPLAN: Yeah. Well, it has plenty of other things.
How did Taking On Tyson do for you, Marjorie?
KAPLAN: Taking On Tyson is tough. It was a terrific win from a brand standpoint, from a publicity standpoint. It helped to communicate our surprising new positioning, which is still very, very new and marketed in New York but pretty much no place else. So Tyson was a great statement about intention. But it just didn't perform.
BERWICK: It is tough. There are like 150 original shows on cable in the summer, not including broadcast. Creating any noise is difficult.
What are your other challenges?
BERWICK: I think many of the challenges are environmental. Every week I look at a list of sort of top 40 shows on cable, including our own, and the percentage that's DVR'd. It's extreme. The good news is they're still watching the shows.
GANELESS: But how do you monetize the viewing on different platforms? One of the bonuses is that people are discovering library content on other platforms and then becoming new fans. Someone who wasn't old enough to watch South Park 10 years ago may now start watching new episodes. But nobody under the age of 16 is scrolling through the cable guide. Their first choice is either VOD, Hulu, Netflix, or DVR.
BERWICK: And iTunes.
KAPLAN: Everything is VOD or DVR, and then they go to their grandparents' house and they want to watch their show and their grandma says it's not on and they don't understand. I think of that as kind of . . .
GANELESS: My show is always on.
BERWICK: We'll constantly ask, How do you get people to go from one platform to another and back? We want them to go TV, online, and back to the TV. With the new season of Top Chef, we launched this thing where you don't know why some people come back on the show unless you watch a web piece.
KAPLAN: You're stretching the brand in a way that doesn't damage it.
GANELESS: There has to be more innovation. It can't just be, Here's a clip, pass it on to your friends. It has to be, How do we reward them for participating? A lot of our viewers grew up in that generation where everybody got a soccer trophy.
KAPLAN: Our viewers and employees.
GANELESS: Exactly. So how do we develop this conversation? TV has been a one-way medium. We've been successful in a few of our shows, Tosh notably and Colbert notably, where he can get the Colbert Nation to do things like sponsor a speed-skating team. How do we evolve that process not just for singular talent-driven shows like those, but for scripted shows?
KAPLAN: And the expectation I think on the part of the audience for all kinds of television: I get to say what I want. I get to have an impact. We just had the experience on Hillbilly Handfishin' where . . .
GANELESS: I've got to remember that title.
KAPLAN: Sunday nights, 10 o'clock. It's actually a great show. Kristin Chenoweth went on Jay Leno and was raving about it and saying she wanted to go handfishing. So we tweeted her and said, "We double-dog dare you. Come. Come handfish with us." Her fans picked it up and were tweeting her to do it. She just wrote us today and said, "I'm in." Then she tweeted back to her fans. First of all, the fans have the expectation of, I'm talking, you better listen to me.
BERWICK: If you engage with your audience you better do what they ask.
KAPLAN: Ordinarily, we would have gone to her agent. She said yes to us. The expectations of the digital world are messy, but they really do change how you do business and how your audience expects you to treat them. I think that's just the beginning.
A version of this article appeared in the December 2011/January 2012 issue of Fast Company magazine.