Lisa Berger, E! Entertainment Television's executive VP of original programming and series development, has shepherded a string of winning TV concepts throughout her career. Berger's secret, say many who have worked with her, is a great eye for talent and the ability to focus on the right concept for the right star.
Since joining E! in 2003, Berger has developed several reality shows that have come to define the Comcast-owned cable brand and have helped drive record ratings, including The Girls Next Door, Chelsea Lately and Keeping Up With the Kardashians. “Unscripted programs are becoming the new comedies and dramas for young people,” says Ted Harbert, president and CEO of Comcast Entertainment Group. “Lisa looks for shows with great characters who can tell interesting stories.”
The twist Berger put on The Girls Next Door was key to its success, according to Girls Executive Producer Kevin Burns. The show originally endeavored to reveal life at the Playboy Mansion from the perspective of both Hugh Hefner's live-in girlfriends and the mansion staff. Berger wanted to center the series on Hef's girls, Burns recalls.
“Lisa said, 'I want to know who those girls are; this is Alice in Wonderland and I want to see this world through their eyes,'” Burns says. “She has a viewer's eye toward what works in terms of story and emotion and what viewers will respond to.”
Adds Harbert: “[Lisa] is one of the best pure developers in town.”
Berger first started developing the knack for finding people who click on TV when she was fresh out of college, working as a game-show contestant wrangler. She got her first job in the field after the avowed lover of crossword puzzles appeared as a contestant on Scrabble, during the show's “College Week.” She was a student at Arizona State University at the time and stayed in touch with contacts from the show, produced by Reg Grundy Productions. When she graduated with a degree in communications and moved back to her hometown of Los Angeles, she got a job on Grundy's Sale of the Century.
Her next gig in television was at MTV, as the network was making its first push toward original non-music programming. She had left Grundy and Los Angeles and moved to New York in search of a change in scenery from where she grew up. She landed a job on MTV game show Remote Control as its contestant coordinator.
As original-programming efforts at MTV quickly grew, Berger eventually rose through the ranks to senior VP of original programming and series development. Ultimately she moved back to the West Coast, starting MTV's Los Angeles office, where she oversaw shows such as Singled Out andRoad Rules.
While her time at MTV was formative, she developed a desire to move into more mature programming. “I was thinking like a young person for many, many years [at MTV],” Berger says. “I had a great time being Peter Pan, but I felt it was time to spread my wings a little bit.”
She took a position at Fox Television Studios and later served as executive producer of Boarding House: North Shore, a reality show that aired on The WB.
She joined E! in 2003, where she began to open the pipeline to outside producers. The first show she developed there was Dr. 90210, which followed plastic surgeons in Los Angeles. It was the prototype for a new sort of program that would prove successful for the network.
“Dr. 90210 was a pivotal moment for E!,” Berger says. “[What it] proved very well was that we can be in the pop culture space, not just the celebrity space.”
E! and Berger built on their Dr. 90210 success, pairing shows with celebrities as well as developing programs that feature talent first introduced to the masses on shows such as Chelsea Lately. Girls and Keeping Up have gone on to spawn spinoff series.
“Having great talent that associates with our brand is what we all strive for,” Berger says. “Especially if we can grow our own.”