Lauren Zalaznick tackles her tasks in twos. She had both premed and English concentrations in college, worked on film and TV careers, took charge in marketing and programming positions, and is now president of two NBC Universal cable networks, Bravo and Trio.
The New York native didn’t even envision a career in TV while she was an undergrad at Brown University prepping to apply to med school.
But to indulge a budding interest in film, she decided to delay med school for a year. After sending out one letter, she landed a job as production assistant on director Frank Perry’s feature film Compromising Positions, starring Susan Sarandon and Raul Julia. For the next decade, she jumped between freelance production assignments on art-house flicks, all the while producing promos, music videos and commercials for MTV Networks and others.
“The youthful glow of doing what you want to do doesn’t always make money to pay the rent,” she says. “But I know what it means to be in production on something—budget, craft services, how to coil cable. Once you’ve really seen how a movie works, it gives you an understanding of what the whole process means.”
She further credits movie work with making her a hands-on producer and giving her a from-the-ground-up perspective for “every teeny piece that fits into a 44-minute DVD that’s called a TV show.”
And although some might consider film more prestigious than television, the dual-media executive holds the two in equally high regard. “You can make great films and really terrible films,” she says, “and you can make great TV or really crappy TV.”
One of what she calls the “storied and fabled few” who leave film for TV, Zalaznick was tapped in October 1994 to be VP, on-air promotions, at VH1 and, within two years, was promoted to senior VP, original programming and development, where she oversaw the launch of hit shows including Pop Up Video, as well as the network’s fashion awards.
But even then, she made time to executive-produce the 2001 male-model send-up Zoolander, a feature film starring Ben Stiller and based on a character she helped create for the network.
PUTTING OUT THE WORD
Zalaznick’s marketing background served her well when she left VH1 to run the pop-culture network Trio, as executive VP, network enterprises, Universal Television Networks, in May 2002. She subsequently launched an aggressive campaign to put out the word on the niche network.
“You can’t push content onto people and make it successful,” she says. Marketing is “inordinately important to deliver concise headlines for people as to what to expect when they get to where you’re asking them to go.”
So is branding. Having taken on the role of president at Bravo a year ago, as part of the NBC merger with Universal television, she rebranded the network in January with a “Watch What Happens” tagline promoting new shows, including Heidi Klum-helmed hit Project Runway. Bravo had already tasted programming success with Queer Eye for the Straight Guy, and Zalaznick brought her artsy persona and pop-culture background together to drive home the message that Bravo is aimed at an upscale, affluent and educated audience.
She concedes such an attachment to establishing her networks’ identities that she even gets excited by new corporate stationery that properly reflects the brand. “People think my brands are me, that I somehow turn myself inside out and put a logo on it and it’s the channel,” she says. “Yeah, I make it kind of me, but it’s my job to make it that way.”
BRAVO, TRIO STRATEGIES
For 2005-06, Bravo will mix returning hits (Queer Eye for the Straight Guy, Celebrity Poker Showdown and Blow Out) with new specials and series, including Being Bobby Brown and Situation: Comedy, in addition to a development slate of four non-fiction series: Battle of the Network Reality Stars; The Daily News (working title), a reality show based on the New York tabloid; Top Chef, a search for the country’s next great cook; and The Real Housewives, a show about real-life suburban Orange County, Calif.
And although Trio has experienced its distribution struggles, getting dropped by DirecTV last December, it is still on Zalaznick’s mind. “It’s not like 'Oh, my God, crazy old Auntie’s in the room. Don’t talk about it!’” she says about the network that is always rumored to be on life support. “We’re wholeheartedly devoted to figuring out the right place for that brand.”
If anyone can do that, it is probably Zalaznick. “Lauren is that rare executive that knows how to balance commercialism with artistic integrity,” says NBC Universal Cable Entertainment President Jeff Gaspin, with whom she became close when they worked together at VH1.
Although the 80 hours of capacity on Zalaznick’s home TiVo are filled with every new broadcast sitcom and drama and an array of non-fiction cable shows (in addition to baseball and Full House for her kids, ages 10, 8 and 3), she takes care not to watch so much of others’ work that her own becomes derivative.
“At a certain point, you have to turn it off and turn your Bravo brain on,” she says. “That’s my whole crazy mantra: to insist that every piece of the channel, and how we touch the outside world, becomes second nature.”
But she also makes time to cook, read and catch movies with her kids.
Zalaznick credits “having a thicker skin than most” and a can-do attitude with taking her far in the business.
“People ask me, do you think you could run any channel, and the answer is yes,” she says. “I’ve felt that way every step of my career. I just say, yes, I can. And if I really can, I really can.”