Alums Named to Women in Entertainment Power 100 List
A CFA and two COM grads chosen by the Hollywood Reporter| From BU Today | By Leslie Friday
The Power 100 list includes (from left) Nina Tassler (CFA’79), president of CBS Entertainment, Bonnie Hammer (COM’71, SED’75), chair of NBCUniversal Cable Entertainment, and Nancy Dubuc (COM’91), president of the History Channel and Lifetime Network. Photos courtesy of the alumnae
Which university graduates people with more power than Oprah Winfrey and Lady Gaga? Boston University, according to the Hollywood Reporter.
Three alumnae ranked in the top 10 in the publication’s 2011 Women in Entertainment Power 100 list, released in December, beating the likes of Winfrey (number 20) and Gaga (number 30).
Bonnie Hammer (COM’71, SED’75), chair of NBCUniversal Cable Entertainment, led the trio, tying for second with Amy Pascal, co-chair of Sony Pictures Entertainment. CBS Entertainment president Nina Tassler (CFA’79) took seventh. And Nancy Dubuc (COM’91), general manager and president of the History Channel and Lifetime Network, followed closely, in ninth place.
Editors used a number of criteria in selecting the women, including revenue generated by candidates for their companies, number of employees they oversee, and their influence within the industry, which encompasses their ability to green-light projects.
Bostonia caught up with the three to discuss their careers in cable and network television, their perspective as women in a highly competitive industry, and their recollections of life at BU.
Hammer was in the right place at the right time when she landed her first job in television production. The photography major happened to be taking pictures on the set of Infinity Factory, a show produced by Boston public television station WGBH, the same day several production assistants were fired. A producer asked if she wanted a job. “I walked on set and fell in love and knew from that day that television was it,” she says.
Today, Hammer oversees a cable empire at NBCUniversal that includes USA Network, Syfy, the E! Entertainment channel, and the G4 network. While flattered by her second-place slot on the Hollywood Reporter list, she says, she takes it with a grain of salt.
“You can’t actually take any of these seriously because it can come and go in a heartbeat,” she says.
From Infinity Factory, Hammer went on to produce PBS shows such as This Old House and the children’s program ZOOM. She moved on to Lifetime and then to USA, where she famously transformed the World Wrestling Entertainment franchise from a quasi-sporting event into appointment TV, where characters and storylines rule the ring.
Hammer next served as president of Syfy, and then USA; she revamped each with envy-inducing results. USA has topped all cable channels for 22 consecutive quarters, and Syfy is now among the top 10 cable channels. She attained her current title last year.
Thomas Fiedler (COM’71), dean of the College of Communication, says Hammer and Dubuc have been “great ambassadors,” for BU, noting that Hammer serves on COM’s dean’s advisory board and was the college’s 2009 convocation speaker. She brands each of her networks with a distinctive personality that draws loyal audiences, he says, and most important for business, a big advertising base.
Hammer says that working her way up through the ranks, she didn’t dwell on whether her colleagues were women. “I’ve been fortunate to work for some really amazing people, where it hasn’t been an issue directly for me,” she says. “That said, it’s still in many, many ways a man’s world.” She thinks boardrooms could benefit from more equal representation of men and women—of all ethnic backgrounds—and would like to see more women and minorities in executive positions.
“There are chinks in that glass ceiling waiting for smart, open-minded, and strong women and minorities to get through,” says Hammer, “but they don’t always make it easy.”
After graduating with a theater degree, Tassler envisioned herself on stage, not as a television executive. She started her career in New York City, working at the nonprofit Roundabout Theatre Company while auditioning for parts. Despite several callbacks, she never landed that breakout role that might have launched her acting career. Tassler says the idea that “perhaps I was destined to follow a different creative path” eventually struck her.
That path led her first to talent agency Irv Schechter Company and later to Triad Artists Group, where she worked as an agent, representing stars like Tony Curtis, Victoria Principal, and Meredith Baxter. She then joined current boss Leslie Moonves (Hon.’06) at Lorimar Television, now part of Warner Bros., before following him to CBS.
Since joining the network in 1997, Tassler has helped transform CBS into the most-watched network for eight of the last nine seasons, with hits like CSI, Survivor, and Two and a Half Men. She was named president of entertainment in 2007.
Like Hammer, Tassler is honored to have made the Hollywood Reporter list, but says she doesn’t put much stock in lists and rankings.
“Years ago, I was given the advice: keep your head down and do your job,” she says. “That is pretty much how I operate. Success and failure are both imposters, and what really matters most is the work itself—not how I rank.”
Walt Meissner (CFA’81), BU associate vice president for operations, met Tassler when she was an undergraduate and he was a grad student and remembers her as a talented actress. Her CFA education, he says, gave her an acute sense of what makes a good story.
“To be a great actor, you need to really identify and sense the character and how the character fits into that story. That’s what she’s talented at,” says the former CFA dean, who named Tassler to his dean’s advisory board. She currently serves as a University trustee. “She has great organizational and motivational skills and knows how to manage people and get everyone on the right path,” Meissner notes.
Tassler says her industry is becoming more gender-balanced. She credits Moonves for actively hiring women and cites the work of her close friend Geena Davis (CFA’79, Hon.’99), an Oscar-winning actress whose Institute on Gender in Media monitors gender issues in film and TV.
“Women in leadership roles help create an environment where TV content reflects what impacts people’s regular lives,” Tassler says. “It also says that our industry values what women bring to the table—in every aspect of the business—strength, leadership, multitasking, in many cases motherhood, complicated lives, and a strong sense of community.”
Still, Tassler says, network TV could benefit from more strong female characters, more women-directed films, and more shows run and written by women.
Three things about Dubuc’s BU experience stick out in her mind: crew, COM, and the Daily Free Press. The first two helped make “a really large community feel small.” And one COM assistant professor in particular, Christopher Cakebread (COM’82, SED’00), made a lasting impression.
“He very early on saw a fire in me that I didn’t see in myself,” Dubuc recalls. “I think that’s something that’s invaluable for a student and is often something you probably don’t realize until there’s some hindsight and years behind you.” They still keep in touch. Cakebread recently wrote her a note after a December New York Times article focusing on her success in rebranding the History Channel.
Dubuc says the independent student-run Freep gave her a sense of independence and an entrepreneurial spirit that prepared her for the working world well before graduation.
WGBH also proved a training ground. Dubuc first worked on male-dominated shows like This Old House before becoming a series producer on the Discovery Channel’s Discover Magazine. It was only after meeting Abbe Raven (number 4 on the Hollywood Reporter list), president and CEO of A&E Television Networks and her current boss, that she began wondering what it would be like to work for a woman.
“Part of the reason I took the job was because I was curious about that,” Dubuc says. “I’d always, from my internship days, gotten the advice: pick your boss, not the job.” She started working for Raven’s network in 1999 and became president of the History Channel and Lifetime Network in 2007. Since then, she has overseen the History Channel’s growth from a top-20 cable network to number 5. The popularity of reality shows like Pawn Stars and Swamp People has added hundreds of thousands of viewers to the network in just the last year.
“She breathed new life into programming that was in search of some kind of identity and edge,” Fiedler says.
So far, working for a woman hasn’t been so bad, says Dubuc, joking that “we’re not divorced yet.” In fact, she thinks more women should be running companies. Does that mean there will be a CEO Dubuc in the future?
That fire is still burning.