Growing up in Alaska where there were few paved roads and little TV, Bridget Baker always knew she wanted to explore life beyond her rural home. And she credits her father with inspiring her—in his own way—to get out there. “My dad would say, 'Well, sweetheart, if it doesn’t work out, you can always pump gas in Valdez,’” Baker recalls.
“That’s a shocking thing [to hear] as a little kid, but it was a great thing to say.”
Sure enough, Baker left Alaska after high school and went on to a career that takes her around the world dozens of times a year. As president of NBC Universal (NBCU) TV Networks Distribution, she negotiates with an array of multiplatform partners, from regional cable operators in the U.S. to international distributors around the globe.
Baker has been with the NBC family since 1988, when she joined the company as regional director of affiliate relations for CNBC. Most recently executive VP of NBCU Cable, she was elevated to her current position last December amid the company’s recent executive shuffle.
The Fast Life on Capitol Hill
But the first stop in her journey from Alaska was in Washington, D.C., where she interned for Sen. Ted Stevens (R-Alaska) between high school and college at Pitzer, in Claremont, Calif. Baker fell in love with Capitol Hill and the fast pace of life in D.C. After graduating with a degree in political studies, she joined Stevens’ personal staff and stayed for the next four years; she also pursued a business degree at George Washington University.
Using her position in Stevens’ office, Baker arranged informational interviews through the government-affairs ffices of satellite and phone companies. But after a friend of hers, a department- store buyer, sent her a videotape of a new home-shopping network called the Fashion Channel, she joined the startup as a sales executive.
Despite her efforts to persuade operators to carry the network, a precursor to QVC, Fashion Channel’s assets were purchased by TCI. Baker, however, had developed a reputation for being a relentless dealmaker, and soon, NBC reached out to discuss starting a new business-news channel on cable.
The network’s VP of corporate development called Baker after she moved back home (Baker’s father took the call while she was out salmon fishing). After the Fashion Channel, however, she was skeptical that a new channel could fly: “I said, 'Cable operators hate broadcasters, and there are no open channels west of the Mississippi River, so why don’t you guys think about another business?’”
But NBC persisted, and Baker agreed to a 90-day stint. This September, she’ll celebrate 19 years with the network. (And CNBC, the network she helped launch, turns 18 this week.)
“I knew she would be a huge asset to us in our challenge at NBC to break into the cable industry as a broadcast- network company,” says TiVo CEO Tom Rogers, who was then a senior executive at NBC. “She was immensely personable while being able to clearly and articulately present the essence of why NBC would be a great addition as a cable programmer.”
Baker has moved up through NBC’s cable division, leading the way to building, selling and distributing its multiplatform assets. She negotiated the Charter Affiliation agreements that launched CNBC in 1989, as well as the 1993 and 1996 retransmission-consent agreements that created MSNBC and brought the Olympics to cable. In 2004, her team added HD networks, on-demand and pay-per-view initiatives.
“Bridget has always displayed a rare quality of intellect and personality,” says Don Mathison, executive director of marketing and programming for the National Rural Telecommunications Cooperative, which represents small operators. “She understands how to listen and then weave everything together into an effective solution for both parties.”
Focus on Emerging Networks
While the distributors have changed, with cable, satellite and telephone companies offering multiple services, Baker’s focus has remained the same: “How can we provide them with the content they need to sell their services.”
And with 14 cable channels and the Olympics in its portfolio of TV networks, Baker is bullish about the future NBCU’s cable business: “Someone said to me not too long ago, 'Bridget, are you just going to retire from NBC?’ I said, 'Well, hell, I’m not gonna leave now!’ Now it’s finally like everybody recognizes what a great business the cable business is.”
These days, she is focused on getting carriage for the company’s “emerging networks”—Universal HD, Sleuth and Chiller—as well as for youth-targeted Hispanic network mun2. She’s also working to put 2008 Olympics content on an array of outlets, including broadband and video-on-demand.
With a schedule that has her on the road at least twice a month, Baker tries to teach her three children about the world beyond their Los Angeles home. Her 10-year-old son has accompanied her to three Olympic Games, and she often gives him lessons in world history, pointing out the cities she visits on a globe.
“For me, it’s about constantly blending work and personal life,” says Baker. “Balance is the wrong word. There is no balance. Jobs are additive. Careers are enhancing, and they bring things to your life.”