Paley Center's leader took an adventurous route through the TV business to reach toward the top rung
By BroadCasting & Cable Staff -- Broadcasting & Cable, 10/19/2008 8:00:00 PM
Once upon a time, in a small town in the South, there lived a little girl who wanted to escape and see the world. Maybe she could be a college professor. Or maybe a magazine writer. Or if that didn't work, she could try working in television—she'd do anything, producer, reporter, you name it. Maybe she'd even grow up to have her own company or to be an executive producer, interviewing world leaders and creating award-winning programs.
But why stop there? Pat Mitchell did all of those things over a remarkably diverse career that also included being president of the Public Broadcasting Service for six years.
Mitchell, a native of Swainsboro, Ga., who enters Broadcasting & Cable's Hall of Fame this year, continues to pile on to that impressively eclectic resume. “Each job built on the other,” says Mitchell, who has been the president and CEO of The Paley Center for Media since 2006, shortly after she left PBS.
“Pat combines a number of talents,” says Les Moonves, president of CBS. “Her people skills are extraordinary and her leadership abilities are phenomenal—she's a take-charge person who is not afraid to make a decision. Also, her creative instincts are right on the money. She does it all with great style.”
Mitchell obviously didn't have a particular career path or destination in mind initially. “The urge was really just to see something beyond that small town,” she says.
Former Lifetime president Carole Black says Mitchell's passion, determination and ability to relate to people propelled her wherever she wanted to go: “She gets very charged up and moves things forward, and she's a great connector of people. Anywhere I travel around the world, when I tell people I'm from America they say, 'You must know my good friend, Pat Mitchell.'”
Mitchell's first step out was teaching English and drama, but she gave that up to move to New York to write for Look magazine. That led to a TV career that started at Boston's WBZ in 1971. But she says her school days were vital to her success in television.
“It was the very best preparation even though television was the furthest thing from my mind then,” she recalls. As a producer, anchor or reporter she knew that when the red light went on, she needed to have a story to tell that would teach, inform and hold the viewers' attention, just as she once strived to captivate a college classroom. “I had to be concise but tell a compelling story.”
Mitchell started as a news producer, the role she preferred. “I was never interested in being on the air; I was more interested in how the story got put together.”
Producing experience helped when she stepped in front of the camera, in Boston and later in Washington, where she won an Emmy as host of a news-interview show, Panorama. That led to bigger breaks—as a correspondent and substitute host on NBC's Today; she later worked on air for ABC and CBS as well. In 1983, Mitchell formed her own production company and created and hosted the Emmy-winning Woman to Woman, the first all–female talk show. Then she co-founded VU Productions, which made documentaries.
“That was an education, in what it was like to run a media company—it prepared me for being on the other side of the desk, deciding what got commissioned or produced and meeting a budget,” Mitchell says.
That opportunity arose in 1992, when she was hired by Ted Turner as president and executive producer of CNN Productions and the Time Inc. television division of TBS.
“It was so entrepreneurial, the absolute most dynamic media company,” she says, adding with a laugh, “Ted would come in and say, 'Let's create a new channel,' and the next day we would. After that, I was not sure anything in the documentary world could challenge me quite so fully.”
So, in 2000 she moved on to an entirely different world as president and CEO of PBS. She was, she points out, not only the first woman but the first producer in that role—a fact she believes was more salient though far less often touted. Still, she has long understood that as the “first or only” woman in a position, she has a responsibility to use the spotlight well. (To that end, she has been an advocate for women's causes, most notably Eve Ensler's V-Day, which seeks to end violence against women.)
PBS was “quite the opposite” of Turner, “with a rather entrenched hierarchy. My style is never to see structure as something you have to live within if you don't think it's best for the organization,” she says. “I pushed the boundaries as much as I could.” While she believes maintaining the status quo can be fatal for media companies, change was difficult at PBS, where she was dealing with a staff of 400 and 350 member stations, as well as the government. “It was like running the U.N.,” she says.
Mitchell was about to accept a job as a college dean when she was approached by the Museum of Television and Radio about taking the helm. Sure, she said, as long as she could change the name to reflect the 21st-century reality.
Mitchell wanted to focus on content, not delivery systems. Soon the MTR became The Paley Center for Media. Mitchell then raised $22 million to transform a “museum” into a modern media center at its locations in New York and Los Angeles.
It's the perfect gig. She's a reporter when she's doing live interviews at the center; a producer in planning the extensive programming; an educator at media think-tank sessions; and an executive overseeing a bicoastal, globally oriented institution. As she puts it: “This job takes every single job I have ever had and pulls it all together.” —Stuart Miller
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