Lauren ZalaznickTribute Video
Ask anyone in television to describe NBCUniversal executive Lauren Zalaznick, and one of the first descriptors will undoubtedly be "curious." It's a mantle she wears proudly. Zalaznick, chairman of Entertainment & Digital Networks and Integrated Media at NBCUniversal, currently oversees a portfolio that includes properties as varied as the female-targeted cable networks Bravo and Oxygen, Spanish-language broadcaster Telemundo, and digital sites such as Fandango and iVillage. It's a fitting domain for an executive who describes her curiosity as unbiased toward any form of art or media.
That view is obvious given her career resume, from her start in independent films and producing commercials, to working at VH1 in on-air promotion and original programming. As dramatically different as the output was at each job, Zalaznick actually sees all her work as being on the same continuum.
"It wasn't like it was a choice to be an artist and a choice to make money, ever; it was a choice to put a bunch of different media in front of the right consumers," she says.
You could say a similar curiosity led Zalaznick to complete both a pre-med curriculum and an English literature degree at Brown University, only to forgo medical school to try her luck in film. She produced Cannes and Sundance Festival award-winning films such as Kids and Girls Town, as well as the Ben Stiller movie Zoolander.
Her breadth of knowledge is what immediately struck John Sykes, the former president of VH1, when he gave Zalaznick her first job in television, in 1994, as vice president of on-air promotion at the struggling MTV sibling.
"She was one of the rare left brain-right brain executives who could not only be wildly creative but also had a great business mind," he says.
As part of a small team under Sykes that included Jeff Gaspin, Mike Benson, Wayne Isaak and Reggie Fils-Aime, Zalaznick helped resuscitate a network that "was about to go off a cliff" and had dug itself into a $150 million hole with advertisers, says Tom Freston, former president and CEO of MTV Networks.
"We had run up a dowry's worth of make-goods, belief in the brand by our charter advertisers had fallen, and ratings were in the toilet," Freston says. "[VH1] had sort of programmed itself into this meaningless catchall for odds and ends. They, she in particular, kind of clarified what it could be and what they would need to do that."
Zalaznick's success at VH1, later as president of the small Universal-owned Trio network and now at NBCU is due not only to her having a feel for the zeitgeist, but knowing how to make it meaningful to a specific audience.
"When we're talking about popular culture, she really tries to understand not just the phenomenon, but what is making the phenomenon relevant," says Charlie Collier, president and general manager of AMC.
When Zalaznick arrived at NBCU in 2004 after the Universal merger, she was put in charge of Bravo, then a niche network known mostly for the breakout hit Queer Eye for the Straight Guy. Taking the idea of brand filters she employed at VH1 and the pop culture sensibility of Trio, she transformed Bravo into the destination for the young, educated and affluent it is today, while growing its viewership 125% and profitability 219%.
Bravo's success story is one of the more well-known in cable. Zalaznick and her team took the five "passion points" of Queer Eye-fashion, food, design, pop culture and beauty-and built a stable of programming around them, spawning hits such as Project Runway, Top Chef, Flipping Out and the Real Housewives franchise. In the process, they created reality shows that are as addictive as they are aspirational, combining high culture with the more lowbrow aspects of the genre.
When NBCU acquired Oxygen in 2008, Zalaznick added that channel to her portfolio as well, helping reposition the long-struggling network for a young female demographic. She also took on The Style Network after the Comcast merger; now known simply as Style, the network has unveiled a new logo, slogan and website, and is pushing its programming beyond the boundaries of fashion.
"If you look at the feel and the attitude of Bravo, of Style and Oxygen, they are completely different brands than the day she took them over," Sykes says. "She knows how to put an attitude and an aspirational connection to a brand like almost no one else I know."
Zalaznick refers to her curiosity as skepticism without cynicism; if someone tells her about a new trend, she's likely to prod: "Really? Is that true?" Though she watches almost no TV besides the programming that goes on her networks, she reads "everything" and is informed to a level that can be intimidating to her staff.
"The biggest contradiction is the high-low, that she will literally quote a line out of some biography that she's just read on a world leader and then she'll mention something from EW," says Frances Berwick, president of Bravo and Style Media. "One of the biggest challenges is just to sort of keep up with her -- and I don't -- in terms of voracious reading and her ability to pull in all aspects of pop culture and news."
And despite a reputation for bluntly stating what she thinks, colleagues are quick to mention Zalaznick's dry wit, a sharp sense of humor informed by her obvious intellect. "I don't know how much credit she gets for being funny but she is so smart and funny," Collier says. "I think her sense of humor and the smarts within that sense of humor are something that I hope everyone can see because it makes her fun to be around as well as just impressive."
She is also known to get excited when she finds a new app that she loves or comes up with a new business idea, like her decision to reposition Bravo and Bravo Media with the addition of e-commerce, Top Chef-branded cookbooks, interactive games and more. (She later did the same for Oxygen and Style.)
In fact, Zalaznick credits the transformation in each phase of her career-at MTV Networks, Universal and NBCU-as the reason she's still in television. Â“"It is in my nature to not believe that anything isn't there to be radically transformed or grown," she says.
"She's a very open thinker," agrees Oxygen Media president Jason Klarman, who also worked for Zalaznick at Trio. "As you get higher and higher up the food chain, it's harder and harder, I think, to be that kind of executive that's pushing the envelopes because you're always trying to serve the bottom line. But I think she balances that bottom-line hyper-focus with understanding how to invest and build the business." --Andrea Morabito