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TV’s Most Powerful Woman?

NBC Universal’s Lauren Zalaznick to speak at SMG today

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Lauren Zalaznick, recently appointed chairman of NBC Universal Entertainment & Digital Networks and Integrated Media, will speak at the School of Management today. Photo courtesy of Adam Olszewski/Bravo

When last month’s merger between cable giant Comcast and NBC Universal was finally approved by the federal government, one woman was poised to become one of the most influential in the television industry. Lauren Zalaznick, formerly head of NBC Universal’s Women and Lifestyle Entertainment networks, emerged from the deal with a new title: chairman, NBC Universal Entertainment & Digital Networks and Integrated Media. In her new role, Zalaznick oversees a wide array of the company’s expanded media empire, including cable networks Bravo Media, Oxygen Media, and Telemundo, as well as digital properties iVillage, Fandango, and DailyCandy.

Zalaznick will discuss her career and the future of the television industry today at 11 a.m. at the School of Management. The conversation, titled How Lauren Zalaznick Went from Indie Producer to Corporate Executive with Chefs, Housewives, and Celeb Moms, is cosponsored by the College of Communication and the New Center for Arts and Culture, which presents art and ideas reflecting contemporary Jewish culture.

Known for her lifestyle savvy and a Midas touch when it comes to spotting hit shows, Zalaznick has had an unorthodox career for a network programming executive. She spent her early career at cable music channel VH1, but left to produce edgy and award-winning independent films, such as Kids, Safe, and Girls Town, before returning to television.

Named one of Fortune magazine’s 50 Most Powerful Women last year, Zalaznick has been credited with taking Bravo from niche network to pop-culture powerhouse, with hit shows like Top Chef and the Real Housewives franchise.

“It’s wonderful to see a woman who has risen like a hot knife through butter through both the corporate and entertainment worlds,” says Garland Waller, a COM assistant professor of television. “Lauren is an example of taking information anywhere you can get it, be it literature, the news, advertising. Her gift is to be able to take that material and become both a trend-spotter and a trendsetter.”

In anticipation of her appearance on campus today, Zalaznick reflected on her career with BU Today.

BU Today: What was your dream job as a kid and why?
Zalaznick:
To be a supermarket cashier, a bank teller, or a toll taker. I loved counting money and making change. I still do.

What are the best and worst decisions you’ve ever made?
The best business decision I made was a variation on the “big fish, small pond.” At various points along my career path, I’ve chosen the bigger purview at the smaller venue: producer of a short film rather than production assistant on a huge feature; president of TRIO as opposed to a smaller programming job at a bigger network. It’s not about the title, it’s about learning a business from top to bottom and being responsible for every decision that goes into building the framework of a smaller asset or product, and then translating that real experience to a broader scope in the next job. I don’t have a single business decision that has been so bad that it ever gutted a successful profit-and-loss statement or even mortally embarrassed anyone. All that tells me is that I haven’t taken a big enough swing at something.

As a programming executive, what advice would you give?
Don’t underestimate the growing power of digital media and how it can truly fuel traditional media’s success. We’ve seen that with the launch of something like the Bravo TalkBubble or Oxygen Live—that serving fans with ways to immediately impact content can be an organic, explosive DVR-buster that creates an instant nationwide water-cooler conversation. It’s not just about websites alone or cool apps. It’s about the alchemy of rabid consumers, great content, and a powerful marketplace.

What was among your most important learning experiences?
My first real job after college was as the assistant to the director of a movie. I don’t think there’s one thing I didn’t learn on that job: business vs. creativity, physical labor vs. intellectual labor, stars and their needs, men and their needs, unions, budgets, negotiations. The value of great catering and craft service on a set. Why you shouldn’t do drugs at work. How people perceive you trumping how you perceive yourself. Most of all, stamina. Everything has been a variation on a theme since then.

What will be the biggest challenge for the generation of women behind you?
While making incremental inroads towards the existing glass ceiling in corporate America, the next generation of professional women has missed out on billions of dollars of wealth creation and business clout by not entering into the digital business realm. Whether it’s the engineering culture, the start-up culture, or any number of social, cultural, and business factors, professional women have sat on the sidelines, by and large, as the digital revolution becomes less a revolution and more the backbone of tomorrow’s Fortune 500.

What’s your motto?
Low hopes, high expectations.

Lauren Zalaznick will speak today, February 9, at 11 a.m. at the School of Management, fourth floor Executive Dining Room, 595 Commonwealth Ave. The event, which is free and open to the public, is cosponsored by the College of Communication and the New Center for Arts and Culture. 

Laura Davidson can be reached at ldavidso@bu.edu.

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