Betty Cohen has always seen TV’s big picture. A lifelong believer in the power of television, she shaped some of its most recognizable brands by taking stand-alone programming and transforming it into a powerful package.
As an example, when she ran the Cartoon Network, the channel took a collection of animated shows that appealed to young men and repackaged it into Adult Swim. The wildly successful late-night block made Cartoon a major player with a hard-to-reach demo.
“My background is to ask, 'How do you engage people in brand with ideas that are bigger than just a single show?’” she says. “What the whole world has learned is, you can get people to broaden their perspective or their world view through something entertaining.”
Cohen, now president/CEO of Lifetime Entertainment Services, immersed herself in the entertainment business even as a teenager. In high school, she acted in and directed plays and wrote her senior paper on the Children’s Television Workshop.
She majored in communications at Stanford University, starting the school’s first news show. She was gathering knowledge all the way, but a study-abroad trip to England, where she learned about Britain’s BBC and London’s pop culture, gave her a new way to evaluate her ideas.
“That was a very formative time,” she says. “It helped me to understand that what we see and do and how we finance things and our regulatory system in this country isn’t the only way people operate.”
In 1977, Cohen picked up important editing and management skills in her first post-college job as a production manager for San Francisco’s Public Media Center, an ad agency for public-service clients. She managed to persuade producers who had worked for George Lucas and Francis Ford Coppola to make the company’s PSAs. But, as she was planning them and managing budgets and deadlines, she realized she was a better editor than writer. “I was the person who had the perspective to see where the project should head, rather than writing the first draft,” she says.
Cohen applied that knowledge as she blazed through the burgeoning cable industry in her 20s and 30s, helping put Lifetime, Nick, TNT and Cartoon Network on the map. As the first manager of marketing for Lifetime precursor Cable Health Network in 1982, she established the network’s footing with female viewers.
From 1984 to ’88, she helped cleverly package TV reruns with a hip, postmodern spin as director of on-air promotion and interstitial programming for Nickelodeon’s Nick at Nite. In 1988, she became director of marketing and general manager for Turner’s TNT.
But it was Cartoon Network that Cohen truly shaped from the ground up, founding it in 1992 after Turner bought the Hanna-Barbera library. In just nine months, she launched Cartoon with one clear goal: to make “the most creatively and financially successful brand and home for animated entertainment in the world.”
“I never said just 'cable network.’ I never said 'kids network.’ I said 'world,’ and I said 'brand.’ I defined the vision broader. You become as big or as small as you define your future.”
Cohen built Cartoon into an international blockbuster, crafting original shows, building the popular Adult Swim late-night block and launching digital extension Boomerang, which shows classic cartoons. As president of Cartoon Network Worldwide, she popularized its characters in 145 countries.
“She has great vision for what a brand could be, and she was great at building the brand and very disciplined in maintaining it and staying true to the vision of that brand,” says current Turner Chairman/CEO Phil Kent.
After nine years at Cartoon, Cohen left Turner to develop a youth-targeting multiplatform project and spent the next few years meeting with some of the biggest technology executives in the industry. She learned that, although the Internet has great marketing power, there is still plenty of room to grow on cable.
“The best way to drive multiplatform media businesses was to have a foot in a fully distributed network,” she says. “A lot of what gets traffic on [Internet portals] is how they annotate what’s going on in mass culture. In the same way that TV didn’t replace movies or radio … I feel like all this multiplatform technology is not going to make TV go away.”
At Lifetime, which she joined in 2005, Cohen focuses on targeting a mass audience while personalizing content on all platforms as well as understanding women’s ever changing lives. Colleagues say she brought Lifetime that focus from the minute she walked in the door.
“She has an amazing ability to ask the right questions,” says Lynn Picard, president, ad sales, Lifetime Entertainment Services, and executive VP/general manager, Lifetime Television. “She can just zero right in on the issue at hand.”
Surely. But Cohen looks at more than just that. “Part of what makes me visionary is that I don’t see only what’s in front of me. I can try and see where things are headed.”