The Accidental Television Executive

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Most TV executives have wanted to be in show business since the day they realized what television was. For Cecile Frot-Coutaz, executive producer of TV's most popular show, Fox's American Idol, going Hollywood is an unexpected stop in an unconventional journey.

"This is not at all where I thought I would ever end up," Frot-Coutaz says. "I'm not one of these people who always dreamed of being in television and who was attracted by the glamour."

She took a strange path to Hollywood. Born in an Alpine village, she went to Paris when she tested into one of the country's top business schools.

Immediately after graduating, she landed a job at SPA, which later became Mercer Management Consulting. Working in London, New York, Washington and Paris, she got a global view of business that few people have.

Having left Mercer to return to business school, Frot-Coutaz got a job as an in-house consultant at the Pearson group, a random assortment of British companies. Pearson, looking to build its media holdings and become a global TV player, brought in Greg Dyke, who now runs the BBC.

"The first day I arrived at Thames, I was really intimidated by Greg. He already was a big TV mogul," Frot-Coutaz says. "I knew nothing about television. I didn't even watch television."

Dyke went on a media-buying spree, and soon Pearson owned Grundy, ACI and All-American Fremantle, which syndicated Baywatch. Frot-Coutaz served as Dyke's point person on the acquisitions and was instrumental in their integration.

In March 1998, she was put in charge of all the properties in France, Italy, Spain and Portugal. So off she went, living a life on the road.

But she met her husband, an American, in March 1999 and, by 2000, was ready to move to the States. She became head of Fremantle's new digital media division and relocated to San Francisco. Simultaneously, though, the dotcom economy tanked, and there wasn't much for her to do.

Pearson rebranded itself FremantleMedia and got more aggressive in the U.S. With no job in San Francisco, Frot-Coutaz became executive vice president, commercial and operations, and began commuting to Los Angeles. She and FremantleMedia North America President David Lyle were tasked with getting the company mostly out of the syndication business and into network and cable television.

One of the company's first deals was with Tribune. Under a strategic alliance, Fremantle produces syndicated game show Family Feud, and Tribune distributes it.

But Frot-Coutaz's, and Fremantle's, world changed when the company launched Pop Idol
in the U.K. in October 2001. "We pitched it before it even started in the U.K.," Frot-Coutaz says. "Some networks would not even take the meeting. A lot of people were saying that it wasn't going to work.

"At the end, [News Corp. Chairman] Rupert [Murdoch] made a phone call, and that was it. After the deal was done, the show had to be put together very quickly."

As American Idol
launches its third season today, Frot-Coutaz is back in the driver's seat, making sure that every moment of every day of America's hottest show goes smoothly. "I'm the person at Fremantle responsible for the show's success or failure," she says.

"Whereas I might handle the broad brush strokes of the creative side of the business," Lyle says, "Cecile is the safe pair of hands. She is the reliable, detail-oriented expert who never lets anything get by."

This time around, though, it's tougher. Frot-Coutaz has a 3-month-old, and she can commute to Los Angeles only three days a week, not four.

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