People of color comprise about one-third of Lifetime Entertainment Services’ 475 employees. One member of that group is Andrea Wong, who stepped in as Lifetime’s president and CEO five months ago after a 14-year career with ABC Entertainment, where she rose to EVP, alternative programming, specials and late night. Her career at ABC culminated with the development of hits such as The Bachelor, Extreme Makeover: Home Edition and Dancing With the Stars. It’s hoped that Wong will bring some of that magic to Lifetime and broaden the network’s appeal to women between the ages of 18 and 49.
In this pre-Diversity Week interview with CableWorld contributing editor Simon Applebaum, Wong shared her thoughts about diversity in the cable industry, and within her own company.
What are your initial impressions of cable’s workforce in terms of diversity?
Andrea Wong: One of the most gratifying things for me was walking into the Lifetime offices and shaking people’s hands on the first day, and finding a number of diverse faces among the group. That made me very happy.
How is diversity uniquely important in television?
Wong: I can’t speak to other industries, because I haven’t worked in them. I can only tell you that diversity has always been a major priority for me throughout my career. When I was at ABC, I spent a lot of time mentoring diverse people, trying to help them gain entry in ABC, Disney or anywhere in the media business. Whenever we hired someone, it was important to insure we interviewed diverse candidates for the job. This is all driven toward the idea that it’s not just the right thing to do, but it is good business. Given the fact that a third of this country is diverse, we need to be, as TV programmers, hitting a wide audience. In order to do that, we need to reflect that in our programming and the people who work with us. That’s important to me, and therefore I make it important in whatever organization that I’m in.
What diversity initiatives do you intend to launch?
Wong: I’m in the process of figuring that out right now. For me, it’s acting and doing, whether it’s about interviews for open positions, or acting as a mentor myself, or communicating constantly to this organization that diversity is a priority. The good news is there are a lot of them already in place. We have internship programs that support minorities. We’re involved in NAMIC, and in a number of other organizations related to diversity. We’ve strived to ensure there’s diversity in our ranks. You’ll see diversity reflected in our programming as well, such as the three dramas we started this summer: Wendy Davis on Army Wives, Diana-Maria Riva on Side Order of Life and Theresa Randle on State of Mind. My goals include developing more strong hit shows that have diverse casts.
NAMIC’s conference this month will include a new workshop for writers who are people of color. Do you see Lifetime participating in that, or doing a similar initiative on your own?
Wong: We should be involved in that.
How important has mentoring been in your career?
Wong: Many people have done it for me, and it’s a nice thing to pass that on and pay it forward. As you know, whenever someone’s hiring for a job, they tend to talk to the people who are near them, who they are comfortable with. Sometimes you just need to open a door for somebody. For example, somebody comes to me who went to one of my schools I went to, writes me a letter asking for help. I will always meet with them, and I will always try to introduce them to people who have job openings.
There are many factors in measuring diversity in cable: the people in the corner executive offices, who’s in front of and behind the camera, the number of networks targeting people of color and the number of ventures owned by people of color. How would you measure cable’s progress in diversifying its ranks and programming?
Wong: For me, are we doing enough to make it work for our business? In the end, it’s all about doing good business. If you want to be successful, or if Lifetime wants to be successful and attract as many viewers as possible, we need to reflect the values and viewpoints of those viewers. That’s how I measure it.
Have you met with cable operators yet?
Wong: I’m beginning to do that now. I’ve met a number of cable operators, like Cox a few weeks ago and Comcast a few weeks earlier. I’m off to Time Warner Cable today. I’ve been involved with NAMIC in the past, and looking to get more involved. I spoke on a panel [they conducted] a year ago.
How does it feel to be running a major cable programming venture?
Wong: I’m having an incredible time. I wake up every morning energized about this position. There’s an incredibly strong brand here at Lifetime, and some very talented people. I firmly believe we can grow this place. And I’m excited about having this whole organization marshal its forces. I’m in a larger leadership role than before, so I’m constantly aware of that every day. And I’m constantly aware that the decisions I make impact a lot of people every day. That’s a great responsibility, and I take it very seriously.