Lauren Zalaznick at her New York City production company in the late 1980s
Zalaznick with the season-one cast of The Real Housewives of Orange County
Zalaznick with Andy Cohen, heading for the Emmys’ red carpet
She spent the first decade of her career in independent film, but it was as a television executive — at the intersection of content, technology and data — that Lauren Zalaznick rose through the ranks.
She helped shape VH1, and then Bravo, into successful entertainment destinations, eventually becoming an executive vice-president at NBCUniversal.
As the New York Times put it in a 2008 profile of Zalaznick, "A certain kind of advertiser, naturally, likes shows about high-end taste and consumption. Zalaznick's real feat has been making sure that high-end viewers like the shows, too."
Her tenure in television was a period of growth and change, marked by corporate mergers and the expansion of cable, then digital platforms. Through it all, she kept her focus on the audience, especially women. "Valuing the power of women on a commercial basis was where a lot of my focus started," she explained. "Valuing the power of women on an emotional and societal basis was lifelong."
Zalaznick earned a Primetime Emmy nomination in 2001 as executive producer of VH1's Bands on the Run and in 1999 received the first of three Daytime Emmy nods as an executive producer of VH1's Pop-Up Video.
She also received the Brandon Tartikoff Lifetime Achievement Award from the National Association of Television Programming Executives (NATPE), and in 2011 delivered a TED talk, "The Conscience of Television," that has been viewed nearly 1 million times.
She remains exceedingly proud of two Bravo shows that debuted and flourished under her watch: Project Runway and Top Chef; the former has been Emmy-nominated as Outstanding Reality-Competition Program 11 times and the latter has been nommed for that honor 13 times and won once, in 2010.
In May 2018, Zalaznick was interviewed by Jenni Matz, director of The Interviews: An Oral History of Television, a program of the Television Academy Foundation. The following is an edited excerpt of their conversation. The entire interview can be screened at TelevisionAcademy.com/Interviews.
Q: Before starting in television, you produced award-winning independent films, like Todd Haynes's Safe and the coming-of-age film Kids. Did you think you would stay in film as a career?
A: Yes. I didn't take my first job in TV until 10 or 12 years after I'd graduated from college, and unexpectedly it was in marketing, not programming. I produced a short film for a commercial producer and director. He gave me work as a commercial producer, so all of a sudden, I was a producer. That led to a decade of producing commercials, music videos and on-air promos in New York.
It was the golden age of on-air promotion at MTV Networks. On-air promo had a vaunted position outside the marketing department — it operated separately and reported straight to the presidents of the networks. That's how I bridged from filmmaking to TV, through this commercial and promo world.
Q: You landed at VH1, as vice-president of on-air promotions, but it wasn't yet VH1 at the time....
A: It was Video Hits 1. And this was a really big job. It called for a full redesign, transforming what had been the sleepy stepsister of cool MTV. This was a marketing, creative branding job before we even invented — and then ruined — the word "branding." We shut down Video Hits 1 and wove its DNA into "VH1: Music First."
Q: In the mid-'90s you were an executive producer on many of the network's original shows...
A: Our president, John Sykes, said to me, "You're really good at these 30-second promos. You used to be very good at two-hour movies. If you put them together, maybe you'd be really good at half-hour or hour-long TV shows."
I thought, "Yes, that makes a ton of sense!" So, I gave up my VP of on-air promotions and became SVP of original programming and development. Initially, we had almost no original shows on VH1. The first mandate was to make a TV show but stay true to our mission as a music network.
One day our incredible head of development, Jane Lipsitz, said, "We have an idea we think is really good — it's going to be a half hour. We'll take five music videos and add really funny, witty, amazing behind-the- scenes information." The first show we greenlit in my era was Pop Up Video, Tad Low and Woody Thompson's creation.
Q: And that started a decades-long relationship with Jane Lipsitz and her producing partner, Dan Cutforth....
A: Jane was on the inside, Dan was on the outside, as a producer, and they produced VH1's first Emmy-nominated series, Bands on the Run, which was incredible. Their company name was Magical Elves, and they are elfin in their delight and sparkle and their weaving gold out of all sorts of materials. That's how I got to know them, and that's how VH1 development took off.
Q: You started diversifying the genres that were on air....
A: It was the beginning of the golden age of cable. Distribution was growing. Publicity was growing. All the things that the industry thought would never happen — that cable could become as popular and as valuable as broadcast television — were starting to happen in the late '90s, early 2000s. VH1 had success with original programming, and what do you do when you have some success? You do more.
We were staying true to this music vision. From Pop Up Video to our version of Unplugged, VH1 Storytellers; to VH1 Divas Live, our big flagship awards show, which was amazing and legendary; to Bands on the Run, the story of how up-and-coming bands needed to make it; to tried-and-true television genres that worked for music. It was a great time for cable.
I also championed The RuPaul Show, which began my long association with Randy Barbato and Fenton Bailey at World of Wonder — they still produce RuPaul's Drag Race. We knew this show was important programming for the network, and it did really well.
Q: In 2001 you resigned. Why?
A: I felt like I'd done my thing. I'd gotten the channel off the ground. I worked really hard for John and Jeff Gaspin [executive vice-president of programming]. I really loved my team. But early in the last year of my contract, I said, "We're producing Zoolander. Let this be the last thing I do for VH1."
[Ben Stiller debuted as male model Derek Zoolander in the VH1 Vogue Fashion Awards; the character was spun off into a movie for Paramount; Zalaznick was an executive producer.] I was going to make more movies.
I had two little kids then, and I was pregnant with my third. The next Monday after Labor Day was the first day of preschool for my kids, and the day after that happened to be September 11, 2001. It was such a disorienting time. Life turned upside down in a second.
The professional part of it was that the financing I'd lined up for two films fell apart. I was like, "Okay, I'm not going make a movie right this second. I'll figure it out."
I got a consulting gig for AMC Networks. At that time AMC was preparing for their first upfront presentation — they were finally structuring as a commercial network. So, the gig was a little bit of programming consult, a little bit of ad sales consult.
Q: How did your next big move come about?
A: About a month later, [British television producer] Michael Jackson was hired by Barry Diller as the CEO at USA Networks, Inc. — which essentially was the USA and Sci-Fi cable networks, the Universal Film studio, Universal Music and the Universal theme parks.
Michael reached out to me. It didn't sound like the job was up my alley, but my friend Doug Herzog from Comedy Central was then at USA; Bonnie Hammer was at Sci-Fi. So, I went to meet him.
The job was to start a network called Trio. Barry had acquired — it didn't have to do with this channel's name — three networks from a Canadian company: Trio was an arts network; NWI was a news network; and there was a dotcom that was going to be another digital network called Crime.Com, a crime network.
Q: But you had another offer on the table...
A: Yes, I faced a fork in the road that December: I could become the head of programming for the new AMC or the head of something that didn't yet exist: Trio. Did I want to be a small fish in a huge pond or a big fish in a riskier pond? I took the flyer to become the president of this nonexistent network.
That's how I ended up spending the next 12 years, between 2002 and 2014, as a television executive. In a weird twist, just a couple of years later, in the dawn of the era of the megamerger, Universal was in play as an acquisition target, and NBC came calling.
We didn't know what was going on with big corporate mergers. And we were stunned one day to pick up the Wall Street Journal, where the headline was something like, "Trio, the jewel in the crown of the Vivendi acquisition."
Ironically, Trio was ultimately itself "Brilliant, But Canceled." [Brilliant But Canceled was the title of a Trio programming block that aired critically acclaimed but short-lived broadcast pilots and series.]
Q: Though, before that happened, you'd been tapped to lead two networks, Trio and Bravo, simultaneously....
A: The NBC–Universal merger concluded in May 2004. Less than a year prior, NBC had already acquired Bravo, independently. By the time we were acquired a few months later, two things had happened.
For one, NBC went from a news and entertainment conglomerate — NBC, MSNBC, CNBC — to a huge media company with a film studio, theme parks and an array of entertainment cable networks.
The other thing that happened — but, in a sense, didn't — is that there had been no infrastructure put around Bravo. It was being supervised and run by people who also worked at NBC, including my former boss at VH1, Jeff Gaspin. So he reinherited me as an employee. And yet another big thing was that Queer Eye for the Straight Guy had launched on Bravo the previous summer.
Q: And it was a huge hit.
A: Off the charts. Never before had cable launched that size of a hit off such a low base. Our goal was to get something else in there before Queer Eye's ratings came down.
Bravo at the time had a couple of incredible opportunities. It was the first time that HBO had let a show leave and be redeveloped for another cable network, and that was Project Greenlight. And we had already developed a show called Blow Out, with [celebrity hairstylist] Jonathan Antin. It was really the first doc reality-follow series, with one guy and his world of peers, employees, personal life, and, most of all, his profession.
This became the hallmark of every successful Bravo series: people who loved to work and who took deadly serious whatever they did for a living.
Q: I'd like to put a point on Queer Eye and the impact it had on the network....
A: Yes. Queer Eye formed the basis of what the brand of Bravo became. Breaking down the Fab Five [hosts] into their areas of expertise — we essentially broke Bravo the network down into the same five buckets: food, fashion, design, beauty and pop culture. These became very tightly constrained development buckets, the filter through which a show had to pass.
The next show in development at Bravo was Project Runway, which fell squarely in the fashion category. We entered into development through these genres, including the logo redesign. All of it helped to launch Bravo into the era that you know today.
Q: What was the thinking behind the logo?
A: Bravo at that time had a capital B and lowercase r-a-v-o . It was black on white. It didn't say to me that it was a media entity that was going to live for a long, long time — it seemed like the name of a TV station. We went to Scott Stowell at [the design firm] Open, and he developed the talk bubble. We loved the idea.
At the time there was a question: should it be more masculine or more feminine? The logo was black with blue on a white background, which is not a traditional female branding palette.
But I said, "This may or may not be a network 'for women.' We're going to be attractive for co-viewing." That was an explicit strategy, to not be an alienating network. There was something for both women and men, and that informed the brand, the colors and the programming as well.
Q: Let's talk about Project Runway and the interesting road it took....
A: Runway was in development when I got there. Jane Lipsitz and Dan Cutforth were the showrunners; it was our first competitive reality show. We were facing questions like, is it interesting to watch people shop for fabric, cut patterns and sew? It was all about work, so we wanted it to be extremely true to what goes into the crafting of fashion. We needed real experts.
Tim Gunn was helping us cast at Parsons [School of Design in New York], and it was one of those moments when you turn around and say, "Hey, you should come out from behind that camera and be in front." [Gunn became a cohost with Heidi Klum and, later, a producer.]
We had a [marketing] partnership with Elle magazine and [editor] Nina Garcia was put forth as one of the judges. We knew we also needed a designer as a judge. We looked around for people who wanted the job, could be on television, had gravitas but also the television wit to do it. [Michael Kors became the first designer judge.]
So, we developed, cast, shot and postproduced Runway, and it premiered in December 2004. It premiered to, I think, the lowest ratings in Bravo history. It was a bomb.
Q: But you turned things spectacularly around....
A: We flooded the primetime schedule with our three episodes of Runway, back to back to back, in three-hour blocks, all over the schedule. It was on all the time. It was like reviving a patient: thump, thump, thumping for weeks, and then all of a sudden, eyes open, a sign of life. Once in your life, you get a miracle. That was mine.
Ultimately it gave us a little bit of air cover for other shows that didn't work out of the box. And the most hilarious, unknown story of what did not work out of the box was the very first season of The Real Housewives.
Q: Do tell!
A: The original pitch for Housewives of Orange County came when two shows were on the air: Desperate Housewives [on ABC] and The O.C. [on Fox]. Two scripted shows, but different genres, different networks, different vibes.
What was attractive to us about the original casting tape of our show was not the five women who ended up being cast, but this closed society who took their residential lives as seriously as a NASA scientist takes a rocket launch. It was life and death, unironic life and death.
It was really about class and status. It was about where you were in the working world. And it was also really terrible in its first iterations. We had two choices: kill the show, or spend a little money, go back in the field and make this into a television show. I said, "I really believe in this concept.
We'll eke out our six episodes. I'll give you extra money to start casting in our next city. This is going to be a traveling franchise: Real Housewives of Orange County, Real Housewives of City Number Two.... They're going to be one-season, one-and-done looks at these groups of working women."
Q: Would you explain the Bravo audience and the term affluencer ....
A: That was another big piece of the brand definition. Affluencer was coined when we were trying to distill the value of what was still a relatively small, but valuable audience.
They are the most affluent and influential of any audience, demographically. We went to market that year saying, if you put your commercial on here, it's going to yield higher engagement, a higher level of recall, a higher intent to purchase. And it worked. We guaranteed on these secondary and tertiary metrics, and we won the bet on the guarantees.
Q: In 2009, Bravo began airing Watch What Happens Live. What was behind the decision to bring Andy Cohen, a Bravo producer and executive, in front of the camera?
A: Runway had reunion shows, and Heidi Klum, Michael Kors and Nina Garcia ran these really well. But when we got to Housewives, there was no way to do a talk show reunion because there was no host. So, Andy was pressed into service as the executive who knew the shows behind the scenes. And he was a talk show producer.
We first dispatched Andy to host the reunion shows, and then we tentatively launched Watch What Happens Live [a pop-culture-focused talk show with revolving guests]. Andy had a full-time job, but he went and did this at 11 o'clock at night once a week. Then Jeff Zucker [CEO of NBCUniversal] said, "You have a hit on your hands. Do five of them a week."
Q: Slightly earlier, in 2008, you were named president of NBCUniversal Women and Lifestyle Entertainment Networks....
A: In 2008 we were acquiring things. [The website] iVillage had been acquired back in 2006. Then Jeff Zucker took over as CEO, acquired Oxygen, and that came into my portfolio. Then came the Comcast merger in 2010: the E! and Style [networks] were split up, and Style came into my portfolio. Telemundo, which had been at NBC for years, also came into my portfolio.
In the meantime, we had also started Women at NBCU, which sounds like a political movement, but was an agglomeration of the female-skewing networks under a marketing and sales umbrella.
It functioned as this incredible advisory board–think tank that tackled research initiatives, marketing initiatives and sales challenges. How do you break into new categories? Why won't Detroit buy women's networks? How come financial services don't believe that women have the power of the purse? That was a big part of that portfolio at the time.
Q: Why was this the time to look at women as a viable audience for marketers?
A: Valuing the power of women on a commercial basis was where a lot of my focus started. And that was my job: create value, grow your networks, grow digital. The emotional, social piece was just a lifelong conviction that it wasn't a fair playing field.
That has obviously come into its own, whether it's the incredible push for amazing programming by and about women — not "women's films" and "women's television," but an incredible golden age of television for women, which has been decades coming but is really here now, I hope. It wasn't so much a shift as an opportunity to bring to the fore issues around women versus general market programming.
Q: You left NBC in 2014, and about a year later you started LZ Sunday Paper ....
A: I started a curated newsletter. It comes out every Sunday. There's a little note from me, a list of 15 or so articles and pieces of video and print from the week — for, by and about women in business, politics, media, pop culture, sports, art, etcetera.
In this community of passionate readers, there's a place for a highly curated delivery of content that you otherwise would've missed, all in one place. It's a tremendously healthy, fun — and funny — learning environment.
Q: What advice would you give someone who wants to get started in this business?
A: I think very old adages still apply. Work harder than anyone else. Don't be afraid to love the work. Learn from every kind of experience. You should generally be having a good time at work, but know that not every day at work will be a good day — that's something you also have to learn and embrace.
For the whole interview, please visit TelevisionAcademy.com/Interviews
This article originally appeared in emmy magazine, Issue No. 2, 2021