Cecile Frot-Coutaz: Ideal 'Idol' ShepherdFremantleMedia North America boss’ business roots, creative chops, diplomacy combine to create perfect leadership for pop-culture hits 1/23/2012 12:01:00 AM Eastern
After American Idol
rebounded following Simon Cowell's departure, it became clear the secret to the
Fox reality show's long-running success was not just its acerbic British judge.
But it may be in part to the woman behind the scenes of Idol: Cecile Frot- Coutaz, CEO of
FremantleMedia North America.
Frot-Coutaz largely keeps her name out of the headlines, but the French
expatriate whom colleagues describe as "level-headed" is the person managing
the purse strings of the lucrative franchise as well as its fellow global hits The X Factor and America's Got Talent. She is also
the one tasked with balancing Idol's notorious
personalities (not to mention putting up with merciless teasing by Idol's British producers).
"In addition to being really talented and really good at what she does, she's
also in the face of lots of politics, and she's very even-keeled in the way she
operates," says Mike Darnell, Fox president of alternative entertainment.
"She's a great politician, she's great at compromise."
Frot-Coutaz's down-to-business approach is rooted in the beginning of her career
in television, on the business side. She joined Pearson Television (which would
become FremantleMedia) in 1994 in the central strategy unit after getting her
M.B.A. Soon after, the chief executive Greg Dyke, one of her early mentors,
hired her to handle M&A strategy as he built up the company's TV assets.
The pair spent the next three years growing Pearson through acquisitions
including All American Fremantle, which gave them a presence in the U.S., and
the Goodson-Todman library of game shows including Family
Feud and the Price Is Right.
By 2001, the company became FremantleMedia and Frot-Coutaz had moved to the
U.S. where she was instrumental in selling American Idol to
Fox. She then became an executive producer on what would become the top-rated
TV show in the country.
"She's done this transition from business affairs into the creative side of
program-making seamlessly, and I think that's the best compliment I can pay
anybody," says Idol executive producer Nigel
Though it's the creative, hands-on process that Frot- Coutaz loves most about
her job, she also brings a sharp business sense as the show's primary
dealmaker, though she's known by colleagues to never let a tough negotiation
affect a working relationship. In 2005, she was promoted to CEO and now
oversees Fremantle's North American operations, which include the reality shows
and syndicated game show properties. She is also working to build up scripted
projects like TBS' upcoming The Wedding Band.
"When I arrived it was before she was CEO of Fremantle, she was COO at the
time," says Idol executive producer Ken
Warwick. "But it became obvious even then that if she ever arose to take over,
she would be the ideal person because she was strong, she was honest, she was
brave and people liked her because of that reason."
Working in television was not always a goal for Frot-Coutaz, but she had a love
for American culture from a young age. She says the highlight of her childhood
came when she was 8 and her family moved from Lyon, France to Bethesda, Md. Her
father, a research scientist for the French government, did an exchange with
the National Institutes of Health. Her family lived in the U.S. for about two
years and it was then that she learned to speak English.
"I loved it, I just have the best memories of those two years," she says. "It
had a big impact. Those are the years that effectively made me want to come
back to the U.S. or maybe not stay in France."
She moved back 11 years ago, and has since made her own mark on the American
zeitgeist with shows like Idol. Working
primarily on unscripted series, she has come to love their scale,
unpredictability and ability to impact pop culture.
"I'm not one of those people who woke up one day and said this is what I want
to do, I sort of fell into it. Once you start working in it and you start
working on the shows, you kind of fall in love with it," she says. "It affects
people's lives in a real way. There's something very interesting about that,
This year Frot-Coutaz has been tested, having to juggle both Idol and The X Factor, dealing with live
performance shows for one and audition rounds for the other at the same time.
And though Idol just returned for its 11th
season last week, the X Factor team is
already starting discussions for changes to its second season (though like the
other producers, she is keeping those details close to the vest). Frot-Coutaz
so far is balancing the two well.
"She has an incredible capacity to take on a heavy workload and intense
pressure and yet still remains calm, nothing seems to phase her," says Idol creator Simon Fuller, who also
notes Frot-Coutaz's devotion to her husband, Elliot, and two daughters (ages 8
and 3), despite her hectic work schedule.
And though Frot-Coutaz never knew Brandon Tartiko" personally, she has
worked with people who knew him. "He sounds like he was incredibly inspiring,
charismatic, creative, a risk-taker," she says, adding that she does spend time
thinking about her own legacy.
"In life we all want to have a legacy. Life's pretty short, at some point you
want to leave something behind," she says. "I'm still searching for it. I think
it's very important. If you don't leave a legacy, than what is it all about?"