Lisa Gregorisch-Dempsey, senior executive producer of Warner Bros.' Extra, joined Facebook last summer and suddenly saw her job in an entirely different light. Facebook was new. Extra was old.
“This entire genre had rust on it. Everyone was doing things in pretty much the same old way, and I could no longer take shows that looked like wax museums with robo-anchors,” she says. “I decided our entire show needed to be turned into an interactive experience.”
With that, she made some radical changes. For one, she promoted Mario Lopez from weekend host—a job he had done for the prior three years—to anchor.
“When I decided I was going to do a completely new entertainment show, all of a sudden he was perfect,” she says. “He's the one who brought the new format to life.”
Says Lopez: “One of the things I love about Lisa—besides being so smart and funny—is that there's no BS about her. She's always 100% honest with you, and she gives you the best, most helpful criticism.”
With Lopez at the center, Gregorisch-Dempsey has given Extra a techno-age face lift, allowing fans to ask celebrities questions, celebrities to ask each other questions and everyone to use Web video phone Skype to call them in.
Two months into it, Gregorisch-Dempsey's bosses at Warner Bros. like the new program. “She continues to reinvent Extra and stay one step ahead of the competition,” says Hilary Estey McLoughlin, president of Telepictures Productions.
Still, Extra remains the lowest rated of the six entertainment magazines, hitting a season high 1.8 live-plus-same-day household rating in the first week of the November sweeps.
If anyone could face that situation head-on, it's Gregorisch-Dempsey, whose straightforward approach has won her jobs, fans and friends in high places.
“If she says she's going to do something, she does it. If she says it's going to happen, it happens,” says Simon Cowell, the “mean” judge on Fox's American Idol. “Of all the people I've met in my career, I'm going to say that Lisa is probably the most loyal, trustworthy person I've ever met. I'd steal her in a heartbeat.”
“I think she's direct and honest and tells it to you straight. She once told me I had too much eyeliner on, and I didn't talk to her for two months,” laughs Katie Couric, anchor of the CBS Evening News and one of Gregorisch-Dempsey's best friends. “Lisa has this larger-than-life personality. I think we both have big personalities, but they are big in different ways. She is very brash and hard-charging, but underneath it all she's a pussycat.”
Couric should know: The two have known each other since both worked in the Miami bureau of NBC-owned WTVJ in the early 1980s, where Gregorisch-Dempsey began as an intern in the sports department. She had been a three-letter athlete in high school, and at one time was New Jersey's top high school shot-putter.
She also had some experience in sports statistics: “After my parents got divorced, my mother would chain smoke and drink Scotch and bet on all the football games. My friends would come over to hang out with my mom, not me, and I ended up being a mini-bookie, taking everyone's bets.
“I was either going to become a bookie or a sportscaster, and I thought the latter was the high road,” she laughs.
Turns out, she became neither. At WTVJ, she quickly rose through the ranks, bringing her new friend Katie with her. “I started running the Broward bureau [in Fort Lauderdale], so I started requesting that Katie come up from Miami, and I would put her on all the lead stories. The cops all loved her.”
Eventually Gregorisch-Dempsey moved all over the country, taking on bigger news jobs. In Denver, she met her husband, Gary Dempsey. He followed her to Dallas, then to Salt Lake City and then back to Dallas. New York and Los Angeles were to come.
“I did all this creative, inventive stuff in Dallas, and the people at Fox noticed,” she says.
Those people included Elisabeth Murdoch, daughter of Rupert, who was then programming director at KSTU Salt Lake City.
“I was so happy in Dallas that I turned down the Salt Lake job several times. Finally, I get a call one day, and my assistant says 'Rupert Murdoch is on the phone.' I thought it was a joke because Katie used to always call me and say she was different people, like Barbara Walters. So I take the call and say, 'That's the worst Australian accent I've ever heard, Katie.' And Rupert Murdoch says, 'Who's Katie?'”
“I was so blown away that Rupert Murdoch would call me personally that I took the job on the phone before I even told my husband.”
In 1994, she got to go back home to New York to run news at WNYW. She was there for just two years before finally getting the call to head out to Los Angeles to work for Hard Copy.
Dempsey's now friend, Liz Murdoch, helped convince her father to let her out of her contract, assuring him that she'd be back. It took three years, but Hard Copy ended its run, and Gregorisch-Dempsey returned to Fox in 1999 as VP of news for the company's 22 TV stations.
But then, Jim Paratore—then president of Telepictures—called her every day for a year and a half, wooing her to take over Extra. His campaign finally paid off, and she became the show's executive producer.
“I think Lisa really does love it,” says Wendy Walker, senior executive producer of CNN's Larry King Live, who is best friends with both Gregorisch-Dempsey and Couric from long ago. “Hard news and entertainment news have really meshed. Five years ago what they do on these shows would not be considered news, but now it is.”
“She can inspire you and make you laugh at the same time,” Walker continues. “It will be really interesting to see what she does next.”