Cooking wasn't exactly Janet Annino's strong suit when she agreed to become the executive producer of Rachael Ray back in 2006. After all, Annino had spent the last 18 years getting up early to break celebrity news at Entertainment Tonight, CBS Television Distribution's flagship access magazine.
“The idea of getting the story first got me out of bed every day,” she says.
So, after spending an evening cutting Rachael Ray's initial sales tape as a favor to her boss, Terry Wood, president of creative affairs and development for CBS Television Distribution, it came as a surprise to Annino when her husband Frank, visiting her at work, observed that it seemed like she might actually want to run the new show.
“I was in the edit bay cutting that material and talking to my husband about what I was doing. I caught him looking at me funny, so I asked him what was up and he said, 'You are in trouble because you get this girl. You are talking about this like it's a show you are actually doing,'” Annino recalls.
At the time, Annino scoffed at the idea, but when Wood asked her to pack up her family, move to New York City from Los Angeles and run Rachael Ray's new show, she realized she had to go with her gut.
“I flew to New York with Terry one weekend and had dinner with Rachael,” she says. “It was signed, sealed and delivered after that.”
Wood says she always knew Annino was the woman for the job: “The fun part of my job is playing matchmaker and putting the right executive producer with the right personality and the right staff. Janet was the perfect fit for Rachael Ray. She is creative, nurturing and knows how to rally a staff.”
It also helped that Annino's husband encouraged the move.
“He's a lot of the reason I am sitting here today, other than Rachael and Terry. He is more adventurous, while I am the worrier of the family.”
Turned out, things went just fine, with Rachael Ray now nipping at Ellen DeGeneres' heels as the fifth-highest ranked talk show in syndication. The show centers on the star's infectious personality as Ray, best known as a cook, takes on everything from preparing Sunday dinner to redesigning homes to giving style tips.
“The litmus test for this show is always 'where is the Rachael in this' or 'how do we do this differently to make this more Rachael?'” says Annino. For example, the show's popular “So You Think You Can Cook?” competition–for which viewers submit videos and hope to be invited to appear on the show–merges several of Ray's passions: her viewers, cooking and reality TV.
“It might sound a little cliché but Rachael and I are a little bit like sisters,” says Annino. “We get along ridiculously well and we are able to tell each other the truth ridiculously well. If something isn't working for her on the show, she can tell me that she doesn't get it and we work it out together.”
Ray is equally effusive about her EP: “Janet is a loving and caring individual who understands the inclusive concept we are striving to achieve. We want the stars of our show to be our viewers, and viewer-driven content requires the direction of a person who is really in-tune with their humanity. Plus, she's a lot of fun at parties.”
And while there's no breaking news on Rachael Ray, there's plenty to keep Annino busy.
“I confess, I'm still a little bit of a junkie when it comes to breaking news, but the people at ET still shoot me e-mails the minute something happens so I stay in the loop,” she says. “I've learned a whole different skill set here.”
Annino arrived on the set of Rachael Ray with plenty of skills already.
When she graduated from California State University, Fresno in 1985, armed with a bachelor's degree in broadcast journalism, she promptly landed a job as the personal assistant to the late comedian Steve Allen.
“It was great training for the rest of my life,” she says. “I did everything from taking the dog out to licensing scripts from Steve's old TV show. He did a show on a New York radio station while I worked for him and I ended up booking talent for it.”
After two years of working for Allen, Annino decided it was time to move on with her career. She had a friend who worked for famed TV executive George Schlatter, who produced such legendary shows as Laugh-In and Real People.
“To learn at the feet of a producer like George Schlatter is not a bad thing,” she says.
Still, Annino jumped at the chance to join ET's staff when the opportunity came.
“To me, ET was the dream job. I loved television. I liked the Hollywood side. And at the heart of everything I've always considered writing the thing I can do best. It combined all the things that I love most,” she says, which explains why she stuck around the show-biz magazine show for nearly two decades, steadily climbing through the ranks.
“You just do what you have to do get your foot in the door,” she says. “I did every job in that building before I left there.”
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