Ask anyone in television to describe NBCUniversal executive
Lauren Zalaznick, and one of the first descriptors will
undoubtedly be “curious.” It’s a mantle she wears proudly.
Zalaznick, chairman of Entertainment & Digital Networks and
Integrated Media at NBCUniversal, currently oversees a portfolio that includes properties as varied as the female-targeted cable networks Bravo
and Oxygen, Spanish-language broadcaster Telemundo, and digital sites such
as Fandango and iVillage. It’s a fitting domain for an executive who describes
her curiosity as unbiased toward any form of art or media.
That view is obvious given her career resume, from her start in independent films and producing commercials, to
working at VH1 in on-air promotion and
original programming. As dramatically
different as the output was at each job,
Zalaznick actually sees all her work as being
on the same continuum.
“It wasn’t like it was a choice to be an artist
and a choice to make money, ever; it was
a choice to put a bunch of different media in
front of the right consumers,” she says.
You could say a similar curiosity led
Zalaznick to complete both a pre-med curriculum
and an English literature degree at
Brown University, only to forgo medical
school to try her luck in film. She produced
Cannes and Sundance Festival award-winning films such as Kids and Girls Town, as
well as the Ben Stiller movie Zoolander.
Her breadth of knowledge is what immediately
struck John Sykes, the former
president of VH1, when he gave Zalaznick
her first job in television, in 1994, as vice
president of on-air promotion at the struggling
“She was one of the rare left brain-right
brain executives who could not only be
wildly creative but also had a great business mind,” he says.
As part of a small team under Sykes that included Jeff Gaspin, Mike
Benson, Wayne Isaak and Reggie Fils-Aime, Zalaznick helped resuscitate a
network that “was about to go off a cliff” and had dug itself into a $150 million
hole with advertisers, says Tom Freston, former president and CEO of
MTV Networks. “We had run up a dowry’s worth of make-goods, belief in
the brand by our charter advertisers had fallen, and ratings were in the toilet,”
Freston says. “[VH1] had sort of programmed itself into this meaningless
catchall for odds and ends. They, she in particular, kind of clarified what it
could be and what they would need to do that.”
Zalaznick’s success at VH1, later as president of the small Universal-owned
Trio network and now at NBCU is due not only to her having a feel for the
zeitgeist, but knowing how to make it meaningful to a specific audience.
“When we’re talking about popular culture, she really tries to understand not
just the phenomenon, but what is making the phenomenon relevant,” says Charlie
Collier, president and general manager of AMC.
When Zalaznick arrived at NBCU in 2004 after the
Universal merger, she was put in charge of Bravo,
then a niche network known mostly for the breakout
hit Queer Eye for the Straight Guy. Taking the idea
of brand filters she employed at VH1 and the pop
culture sensibility of Trio, she transformed Bravo into
the destination for the young, educated and affluent it
is today, while growing its viewership 125% and profitability 219%.
Bravo’s success story is one of the more well-known in cable. Zalaznick and
her team took the five “passion points” of Queer Eye—fashion, food, design, pop
culture and beauty—and built a stable of programming around them, spawning
hits such as ProjectRunway, Top Chef, Flipping Out and the Real Housewives
franchise. In the process, they created reality shows that are as addictive as they are
aspirational, combining high culture with the more lowbrow aspects of the genre.
When NBCU acquired Oxygen in 2008, Zalaznick added that channel to her
portfolio as well, helping reposition the long-struggling network for a young female
demographic. She also took on The Style Network after the Comcast merger;
now known simply as Style, the network has unveiled a new logo, slogan and
website, and is pushing its programming beyond the boundaries of fashion.
“If you look at the feel and the attitude of Bravo, of Style and Oxygen, they
are completely different brands than the day she took them over,” Sykes says.
“She knows how to put an attitude and an aspirational connection to a brand
like almost no one else I know.”
Zalaznick refers to her curiosity as skepticism without cynicism; if someone
tells her about a new trend, she’s likely to prod: “Really? Is that true?” Though she
watches almost no TV besides the programming that goes on her networks, she
reads “everything” and is informed to a level that can be intimidating to her staff.
“The biggest contradiction is the high-low, that she will literally quote a line
out of some biography that she’s just read on a world leader and then she’ll
mention something from EW,” says Frances Berwick, president of Bravo and
Style Media. “One of the biggest challenges is just to sort of keep up with
her—and I don’t—in terms of voracious reading and her ability to pull in all
aspects of pop culture and news.”
And despite a reputation for bluntly stating what she thinks, colleagues are
quick to mention Zalaznick’s dry wit, a sharp sense of humor informed by her
obvious intellect. “I don’t know how much credit she gets for being funny but
she is so smart and funny,” Collier says. “I think her sense of humor and the
smarts within that sense of humor are something that I hope everyone can see
because it makes her fun to be around as well as just impressive.”
She is also known to get excited when she finds a new app that she loves or
comes up with a new business idea, like her decision to reposition Bravo and
Bravo Media with the addition of e-commerce, Top Chef-branded cookbooks,
interactive games and more. (She later did the same for Oxygen and Style.)
In fact, Zalaznick credits the transformation in each phase of her career—at
MTV Networks, Universal and NBCU—as the reason she’s still in television.
“It is in my nature to not believe that anything isn’t there to be radically transformed
or grown,” she says.
“She’s a very open thinker,” agrees Oxygen Media president Jason Klarman,
who also worked for Zalaznick at Trio. “As you get higher and higher up the
food chain, it’s harder and harder, I think, to be that kind of executive that’s
pushing the envelopes because you’re always trying to serve the bottom line.
But I think she balances that bottom-line hyper-focus with understanding how
to invest and build the business.”