Last spring, Christina Norman was "going along minding my own business" as a top marketing exec at MTV when she got a call from the boss. MTV Networks Group President Judy McGrath needed someone to run ailing VH1. Was she up to the challenge?
"I hadn't really thought of going for it," Norman recalls, "but, of course, I always wanted to run something someday or have a different kind of responsibility here."
McGrath had faith in Norman. "When I thought about who would be the best person to take VH1 to the next place by setting a high bar creatively, I thought of Christina," she says. "She has some unique characteristics for a creative leader."
Norman was named general manager of VH1 in April 2002. Not bad for a woman who, while growing up in the South Bronx, never considered television as a career. "People I grew up with," she says, "were nurses and doctors and lawyers."
It was during her days at Boston University in the early 1980s that television turned up on her personal radar screen. Wanting a job and enticed by the prospect of making $50 to $75 a day, she signed on at a small production company that made commercials.
"It was really freeing," says Norman. "A lot of my friends were going to work for Raytheon and Digital Equipment and those kinds of tech companies. I was, like, this is much better than having to do that."
After considering and dismissing filmmaking as her next step, Norman moved back to New York and pursued production as a freelancer. In the late 1980s, she interviewed with MTV but was not hired. She showed her mettle as a freelancer on two of the network's shows and was subsequently snapped up when the position opened up again.
Norman was off and running, but her advancement through MTV's ranks was marked by a bumpy transition from production management to director of the promotions division, where the creative team viewed her as a "business head," she says.
"I've always believed you don't have to have been a producer to be a great judge of good, creative work," Norman says of that period. "Sometimes, it's hard for people who have made something to be able to step back and objectively see it and judge it."
Norman turned to her boss and mentor Angie Lee, whom she credits with "giving good, creative feedback about looking at work, about being strategic." She weathered the storm and took over the department when Lee left the company.
Happily ensconced at MTV, Norman was courted by McGrath to make the move to VH1. McGrath reminded Norman of a comment she had made to McGrath years before: "I can do more. You guys aren't using me to the best of my ability."
Today, Norman is putting her money where her mouth is, as she and President of Programming Brian Graden strive to revitalize the ratings-deficient VH1. The pair has managed to recapture some of the coveted 18-49 audience by systematically introducing fresh, youthful shows like Driven
and All Access, pushing specials (Divas Live) and saving overworked fare, such as Behind the Music,
for special occasions only. Next for the net-on-the-mend is the development of long-term series, Norman says.
"In many ways, [VH1] came back quicker than I ever expected," says McGrath. "And that is to both their credit."
As Norman moves into her 13th year with MTVN, she is maintaining another network in her life. "I love spending time with my family," she says. "Outside of work, my complete and total devotion is to them."
Currently, her greatest challenge involves knitting needles. "I'm dying to find a good [knitting] pattern for a bikini for my 12-year-old daughter," says Norman. "I remember my mother making one for me."