Cable TV’s Female Execs On The Future Of Television

In this extended version of the roundtable article from our latest issue, three of cable’s female executives talk about how television is evolving, how shows fail or succeed, and how everyone loves handfishing.

Cable TV’s Female Execs On The Future Of Television
Photo by Marvi LacarFrom left: Bravo’s Frances Berwick, Animal Planet’s Marjorie Kaplan, and Comedy Central’s Michele Ganeless. | Photo by Marvi Lacar

It’s probably no surprise that Frances Berwick, president of Bravo–the cable channel known for the Real Housewives and Top Chef franchises–speaks deliberately and has an impeccable sense of style. Or that Comedy Central president Michele Ganeless displays a sly, cerebral humor, not unlike that of The Daily Show. But the wild card at Fast Company‘s lunch of innovative cable executives discussing the industry was Marjorie Kaplan. As president of Animal Planet, she is pushing the scrappy cabler’s placid programming (Puppy Bowl!) to edgier realms with Hillbilly Handfishin’ and Whale Wars. While dining at New York’s Four Seasons Hotel, Kaplan was alternately analytical and vulnerable (Taking on Tyson, her much-hyped Mike Tyson-races-pigeons reality show, failed to grab viewers). And when everyone else ordered the salmon, Kaplan went for the poached eggs; naturally, she does not eat animals.


Marjorie Kaplan: Frances and I are in a drinking club together.

Frances Berwick: It’s true. About once a quarter this group of women who work in cable meet for drinks.

Michele Ganeless: I need to go to that!


Marjorie Kaplan: It’s like a floating crap game.

FC: But no men allowed?

Kaplan: Well, they haven’t been there yet.


FC: There seems to be an unusually large number of women running cable channels, compared to female executives in other industries like the movie business. Why is that?

Berwick: It’s pockets of business. If you look at cable technology and engineering you would still find it is male dominated for all kinds of historic reasons [like] what women choose to study. Overall though, cable is still a very 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. It’s really about the youth of the industry. When I started in cable in 1991, Gerry Laybourne was one of the leaders of cable [as then-president of Nickelodeon] and Judy McGrath was already a leader in cable [at MTV]. That’s when I came into the industry out of college. That’s who I saw. There was never any question of how does a woman break through. Comedy Central’s 20 years old, MTV–which is old–is 30.


Kaplan: There are studies of how women think and work collaboratively and multitask. It’s not to say that all women do and men don’t, but there is data that shows that women tend to be more focused on relationships, that men in business tend to have the hero’s journey that they’re on. You know, I will go into the battle. Women tend to be I’m going to create a collective around me and we will go into battle together. Again, it’s overstating it … but I think that skillset, 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 and to create something.

FC: So says the former Semiotics major.

Kaplan: Yes, I studied Semiotics, which is the study of signs. What I discovered years after I had studied it was that I was using it in ways that I didn’t realize. It’s been very helpful for me in terms of thinking about branding. And it’s interesting in little ways like logo development and what is this logo communicating to people? And in big ways like just being interested in listening to people and listening to the audience and constantly reminding yourself what are they picking up that I’m not aware of.


FC: Cable is all about the connection between an audience and a brand identity. How do you identify that audience?

Berwick: We have segmented the audience that we go after. We have what are called Wills and Graces.

Kaplan: I’m sorry?


Berwick: We have our Wills and Graces. They’re our core audience, i.e. sophisticated, urban dwelling, cosmopolitan women and men, including a lot of gay men. Then we have our PTA Trendsetters. Still very affluent and educated but maybe a bit more suburban. We have different shows that skew more, now we’ve started identifying three more lower hanging buckets.

FC: What are those?

Berwick: Well, it just sounds like crazy jargon. The next group is the Metro Competitors–straight men who watch the real estate shows and competition shows. Then we have the new group we’re very excited about called the Newborn Grownups [who are] straight out of college. But I do think sometimes you have to check yourself, sometimes you just have to make a decision based on your gut. When you do the research, and you probably do this [she says to Ganeless], I’m still trying to figure out why Tosh [Daniel Tosh, host of Tosh.0] is such a … I think the guy is hilarious but why is he that much more hilarious than some of your other funny shows that I thought were good? I don’t know, is that just because it’s not really my demo? Do you know?


Ganeless: No. I don’t. What we do in research is really try to understand our audience, more so than researching a concept or an idea. It’s understanding how our audience relates to comedy, how comedy is a part of their lives, how technology influences what they watch, when they watch it. We just completed a study about how comedy is the ultimate connector for this generation. We’re calling them Comedy Mavens, because when we were young you’d make a mix tape to show who you were. It was all about music. Now the funnier the clip that you post on Facebook, that you send around on Twitter, the more popular you are. So, if you post a clip of Tosh it says something about you. If you post a clip of Jon [Stewart] talking about the election, that says something about you. But the more likes you get for that clip that you post, the hotter you are. People talk about it as how they decide who to date. One of Tosh’s great … one of the things he does so well that I think is largely responsible for his success is he connects with the audience. It’s not a one-way conversation for him. He’s dealing with social media. He’s tweeting during his shows. He’s giving his viewers a chance to send in clips, to finish his tweets. It’s really an interactive show as much as it can be in a one-way medium through the use of social media.

Berwick: I think that’s essential now. You have to do all that stuff. We have all our talent do it. Now producers are getting really, really receptive and open to it. People love more information. That’s the big a-ha. 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 sort of this concept of 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 in that moment. So, Daniel [Tosh] is tweeting at 10:00 on Tuesday nights. Comedy is so subjective. It’s very hard to segment our viewers in that way because comedy is so subjective. What you find funny …


Kaplan: It’s so idiosyncratic.

Ganeless: … even if you are living the same kind of life and have the same kind of psychographics as somebody else, your sense of humor may be very different.

Kaplan: It’s so interesting. I’m listening and I’m so jealous. We are in a learning process about our audience. The change that we did on the brand was all because we did a lot of research with the audience and we were looking and saying, What’s wrong here? Why is this channel that’s been around for 10 years and everybody says they love, not watched? So, we went out and talked to people and we found out it wasn’t delivering on what they wanted from animal content. Then the next level was finding out actually 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. We’re still learning. We’re dying for those buckets. The way we’re looking at our business now is we’re saying, How do we super-serve the audiences that we have brought in? So the idea is How do you get out of your air-conditioned life and how do you experience something that’s a little more raw and a little more real? That’s sort of the understanding that grew out of River Monsters and that then leads to Hillbilly Handfishin’ to take it to the extreme.


Ganeless: That’s a great title.

Kaplan: Hillbilly Handfishin’ is like the number one title on television!

Berwick (smiling): Wait a minute … how do you prove that?


Kaplan: I don’t have to prove it. I say it three times and it’s true. Title means everything. In a world where people are scrolling through [on-screen 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.

FC: How did Taking on Tyson do for you, Marjorie?

Kaplan: Oh, Taking on Tyson is a personal … Taking on Tyson is tough, tough for us and for me personally. It was a terrific win from a brand standpoint, from a publicity standpoint, from an advertiser standpoint.


Berwick: Because it got a lot of press.

Kaplan: It got a lot of attention and it said a lot about what our ambitions were. It helped to communicate the sort of 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. He’s fascinating, he gave a lot of himself, and it just didn’t work. It just didn’t perform. Every once and a while you have a show that you just love that just doesn’t work.

Ganeless: Why do you think?

Kaplan: It’s funny because recently we have tried to figure out what the cause is.

Berwick: It is tough though. There are like 150 original shows on cable in the summer, not including broadcast. So just creating any noise to get people checked out first is increasingly difficult. Then you have the added challenge, which is why we end up doing so much social media stuff during the shows. If people have already set their DVRs to the show before that you’re using as a conventional launch platform for, they won’t find it unless you really create some sort of attention and buzz around it.

FC: What are your other challenges?

Berwick: I think many of the challenges that we have are environmental. It’s the DVR penetration. 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. That’s extreme. The good news is they’re still watching the shows. The lift that you get both within three days and then within seven days is extreme. But the behavior is changing so fast I think authentication and seeing where that can sort of take the industry as a whole is …

FC: Authentication?

Berwick: Authentication is basically a firewall or a protected window online where if you’re a Time Warner customer you can go in and [watch shows online]. Right now we have very limited streaming options if you go on to You put in your Time Warner password, the idea is that you will have a much bigger selection. There’s also the fact that now that you can stream the networks on iPads and that’s not measured by Nielsen, there’s all these things that are potential industry game changers that the support mechanisms haven’t yet caught up with. So Nielsen has to start measure iPad usage. It really is about how can we get Nielsen, for example, to accelerate being able to measure that because otherwise it’s just un-monetized eyeballs. The same with online. Eventually I think the authentication will be pretty pervasive it just depends on the rollout.

Ganeless: I mean there has to be a way. There’s a way to measure computer usage. For a long time there wasn’t. What keeps me up at night are the business challenges. So who’s the next Daniel Tosh, who are the rising stars? So that’s one challenge and sort of ever present. Again, none of the rest of this means anything. You can’t have social media or Internet usage without–

Berwick: Great content.

Ganeless: Right. If the content’s not there. But the other challenge is both how do you monetize the current viewing that’s happening on different platforms and then what are the new business models? We have deals in place for our content with Netflix, with Hulu. What are the subscription models that are going to be relevant? One of the bonuses of all these new platforms is that people are discovering library content on other platforms and then becoming new fans. South Park‘s been around 15 years. Someone may discover it on Netflix or Hulu, an episode from 10 years ago who wasn’t old enough to watch 10 years ago and may now start watching new episodes. So, new platforms are an opportunity for us but they’re also just another viewing option. Nobody under the age of 16 is scrolling through the cable guide. Their first choice is either VOD, Hulu, Netflix is often, because you can stream it through your TV, the first thing they go to and their DVR.

Berwick: And iTunes.

Kaplan: The vast majority of our audience doesn’t differentiate at all between broadcast and cable.

Ganeless: I have a 3-year-old. Everything we watch is on VOD.

Kaplan: Everything is VOD or DVR and then they go 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 that as that kind of …

Ganeless: My show is always on.

Kaplan: I think that anticipating the impact of that audience, which by the way is not just three, but like 13 now. I think that’s going to be hugely transformative.

Berwick: That and the fact that you’ve got these under one-year-olds who apparently see a screen and their default to try and get it to change is to do the swipe. [She casually flicks her wrist from left to right.]

Berwick: We’re very focused on innovation so we’ll constantly ask, How do you get people to go from one platform to another and back? So you’re not just driving people from the television to online. We want them to go TV, online, and back to the TV. So, we’re going to be launching with the new season, the next season of Top Chef, this whole thing where you don’t know why these people are coming back in the show unless you’ve watched the web piece. We wanted to do this and then we figured out how to do it and we’re doing it in our biggest show. So, it will explain why you have to go there and why it makes sense for these people who you haven’t seen for weeks to suddenly be back on the show.

Ganeless: Oh, you’re messing with the fans, you’re messing with us.

Kaplan: Part of what you are doing by doing that is stretching the brand. You’re just doing it in a way that doesn’t damage the brand.

Ganeless: I think there’s so much innovation happening now because of all the technological advances. So, I think 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 what are they able to give back? Can they see themselves reflected in the programming? How do we reward them for participating? Because a lot of our viewers grew up in that generation where everybody got a soccer trophy and everybody was a winner all the time.

Kaplan: Our viewers and our employees.

Ganeless: Exactly. All of those millennials. So it is How do we develop this two-way conversation? TV has been so traditionally 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 the speed-skating team or name a bridge after him in Hungary because he asks them to and they want to be a part of whatever he’s doing. How do we evolve that conversation or that process not just for singular talent driven shows like those but for scripted shows. Because that is how hits will be sustained over time. I still believe it’s all about hits because without them none of this matters.

Kaplan: And the expectation I think on the part of the audience for all kinds of television that will be in conversation with them. 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, 10:00. It’s actually a great show. But Kristin Chenoweth went on Jay Leno and was raving about the show and saying she wanted to go handfishing. She’s from Oklahoma, which is where it’s filmed. “I want to go handfishing. I want to go.” 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, “Come on you’ve got to do it,” and she agreed to do it. She just wrote us today and said “I’m in.” Then she tweeted back out to her fans she was going to do it. First of all, the fans have the expectation they’re going to listen to them. They expect I’m talking, you better listen to me.

Berwick: If you engage with your audience you better do what they ask.

Kaplan: You better do what they tell you. She listened to them. Ordinarily, we would have gone to her agent. She just said yes to us. I mean it’s just interesting how kind of the expectations of the digital world, they’re 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.

Who’s Watching Bravo, According To Bravo
Why Kristin Chenoweth Is Going Hillbilly Handfishin’
Animal Planet Show Or New York Post Headline?
Original Article: “My Show Is Always On”
Sidebar: Other Notable Female Cable Execs


About the author

Ari Karpel is a frequent contributor to Fast Company and Co.Create and an instructor at UCLA Extension. His writing about culture, creativity and celebrity has also appeared in The New York Times, Entertainment Weekly, Men's Health, The Advocate and Tablet.