In all the hours studying tort and First Amendment law at Columbia Law School, Jonathan Barzilay never imagined himself as a kids-programming executive and boss of a cartoon network. But that's what he is, and the senior vice president of ABC Kids and general manager of cable network Toon Disney says the two worlds actually go hand-in-hand.
"Legal analysis and programming are very different skills, but they both come down to judgment," he explains. "You have to be comfortable making decisions. In that sense, legal training gave me an approach to decision-making that has carried over into the programming field."
Television played a big part in his becoming a lawyer, he adds. "I was interested in litigation, and, of course, my view of litigation had probably been unduly influenced by TV shows in which cases are brought, researched, examined and tried within 60 minutes."
Soon after finishing law school in '84, Barzilay discovered that litigation wasn't as exciting as TV had portrayed it, and he looked to get more involved with media and entertainment. The son of a New York Times
editor, he had taken classes at Columbia's graduate school of journalism during law school.
In 1986, he joined an entertainment law firm, Berger & Steingut, working on music, publishing and other entertainment-related cases. He handled a lot of prepublication and prebroadcast reviews, which is how an ABC headhunter found him.
He became a general attorney for Capital Cities/ABC in 1990. Most of his initial work, he says, was on the ABC News newsmagazines 20/20
and Primetime Live, both of which had big investigative units and numerous legal hurdles. "In private practice, months can go by between tough judgment calls. In TV, it's rare that a day goes by without one. You are trying to balance legal analysis with the demands of TV deadlines. It was very much an environment in which you need to think on your feet."
In 1993, he took on legal oversight of ABC's owned-and-operated stations. At the time, the station group was making its first radio duopoly acquisitions, and there were always indecency complaints to monitor, he says: "But not as many as some of the other station groups. ABC isn't particularly notorious for its indecency complaints."
A few years later, Barzilay was named a vice president at ABC Television Network Group and, putting aside his legal cap, took on the task of helping get a proposed 24-hour ABC News cable channel off the ground. The channel was announced but never launched. Soon after, Disney acquired Cap Cities/ ABC, and synergy was the new buzz word. One of the first areas to be integrated was ABC's Saturday-morning kids block, which could easily be filled with Disney animated programs.
Leading the transition as vice president and general manager of ABC Children's Programming, Barzilay launched the network's One Saturday Morning block of Disney kids programming, a lineup that shot to the top of the ratings and was No. 1 for several years. Last May, Barzilay took on the all-animation Toon Disney network, which has grown from 11 million subscribers to nearly 30 million.
"I asked him to be the GM of Toon Disney in addition to his duties at ABC Kids," says Barzilay's boss, Anne Sweeney, president of ABC Cable Networks and Disney Channel Worldwide, "because I felt that, even though he hadn't worked in the cable industry, he had a very strong understanding of Toon and the kids business at the Walt Disney Co."
Says Barzilay, "At a company like Disney, you really have an opportunity to learn many different businesses. Already I've learned about network news, I've learned about the owned stations, and now, with Toon Disney and ABC Kids, I'm getting to learn the kids and cable side of the industry."