Christina Norman was named president of the cable channel VH1 in early 2004, a career achievement that made her one of the highest-ranking African Americans in the television industry. For two years prior to that, Norman had been instrumental in helping revive ratings at VH1, which had been struggling to lure and keep new viewers with a mix of music videos and its music- and pop-culture-centered original fare. Norman enjoys a reputation for being able to lead the various creative teams at VH1 and before that, at MTV, where she had worked for much of the 1990s. Judy McGrath, MTV Networks Music Group president, summed up Norman's talents in a Crain's New York Business profile. "When kids are kicking the backseat in the car, you need someone who can drive," McGrath told journalist Elizabeth MacBride.
Born in the early 1960s, Norman grew up in the New York City boroughs of the Bronx and Queens, and earned a degree in film production from Boston University. She began her career in the advertising business as a specialist in the tabletop shot, which is the static image of the product in a commercial. Many television-commercial professionals dread having to undertake the task, considered the least creative part of the thirty- or sixty-second ad. "I still remember my last spot," Norman told Advertising Age writer Richard Linnett. "It was for Tylenol Allergy Sinus. It was all night shooting because the pill was the wrong color and we were using a motion control camera, which takes forever to set up."
Norman was hired at MTV Networks in 1991 as a production manager for its own unique in-house promotional spots. Her first big break came in the lead-up to the premiere of the Beavis and Butt-Head series. One of her supervisors was trying to recruit staff for the animated series, which quickly became one of the top-rated shows on the cable channel and a pop-culture phenomenon. The boss came through the office asking if anyone knew about animation, and Norman volunteered—though she had no experience in the field. She assumed she would just learn on the job, she recalled in the interview with Crain's New York Business. "I can figure anything out," she told MacBride.
During the 1990s, Norman put together the campaigns for MTV shows or promotional features like TheOsbournes and the 10 Spot. She rose to the post of senior vice president for marketing, advertising, and on-air promotion, and gained the attention of executives at Viacom, which owns MTV, as an executive able to both inspire and lead creative professionals. In April of 2002, she moved over to sister network VH1 as an executive vice president and general manager. McGrath had brought Norman on board to help revive its fortunes. At the time, VH1 was logging poor ratings in prime-time hours, though the network had experienced surges of new viewers thanks to original programming such as Pop-Up Video and Behind the Music just a few years before. Norman recognized the need to find a new batch of programs to lure an audience. "A hit can change anything," she told Daily Variety 's Melissa Grego. "I think the game is just to have more at bats for VH1. We've got to keep feeding that pipeline with more ideas, more fresh series, and episodes of things people like."
Norman set the creative teams to work and also oversaw a new identity campaign for VH1. In less than a year, the channel launched several new hit series under her watch, beginning with I Love the '80s, a look back at music and trends for one year in the decade. It was such a success that it spawned spin-offs about the 1970s and the 1990s. Bands Reunited also proved a popular show, as did a barb-filled look back at the week's celeb-and entertainment-business events called Best Week Ever. There were just a few foul balls in that series of at-bats that Norman spoke of: Rock Behind Bars, a series showcasing bands formed by prison inmates, was one. It prompted objections from victims' families in some cases. There was also a contract for a Liza Minnelli-David Gest reality-television show that was inked just before rumors that the marriage was disintegrating reached the tabloids.
The other shows were a success, however, and VH1's prime-time viewers in a key age demographic jumped from 243,000 to 339,000. Norman's efforts were further rewarded when Viacom executives named her VH1's president in January 2004. The promotion made her one of the top African-American women among the ranks of entertainment executives. She had previously landed on lists such as Ebony magazine "Top 10 African-Americans in Television" and the Hollywood Reporter 's "Top 100 Women in Entertainment." Though she recognized the significance of her achievement, she also noted that Viacom and other companies were working to ensure that a new era was underway. "There have been times when certain viewpoints were not being represented but now they're being heard," she said in an interview with Multichannel News writer Diana Marszalek. "We are doing diverse programming. That's good for business, good for viewers and good for our branding."
Norman's office is in the Viacom headquarters on Times Square in the heart of midtown Manhattan. She lives in the city with her husband and two daughters, and is active in a New York City program called PENCIL (Public Education Needs Civic Involvement in Learning). Designed to bring together the city's public-school system and the private sector, its most popular feature—in which Norman has participated—is "Principal for a Day," in which executives take over a school for a day. But VH1 and its fortunes remain her primary focus. "When I first took this job, friends would say, 'I love VH1 but I'm not watching it anymore,'" she told Brandweek writer Becky Ebenkamp. "Now, they're calling up and saying, 'Oh, I loved that show!'"
At a Glance …
Born c. 1960, in New York, NY; married; two daughters. Education: Earned degree in film production from Boston University.
Career: Worked in television-advertising production until 1991; MTV Networks, New York, began as production manager, became senior vice president for marketing, advertising and on-air promotion, executive vice president and general manager for VH1, April 2002-January 2004, president, January 2004–.
Memberships: PENCIL (Public Education Needs Civic Involvement in Learning).
Awards: Ebony magazine, Top 10 African-Americans in Television, 2002; Hollywood Reporter, Power 100 Women in Entertainment, 2003.
Addresses: Office —c/o MTV Networks, 1515 Broadway, New York, NY 10036.
Advertising Age, September 23, 2003, p. S26.
Brandweek, March 22, 2004, p. 26.
Broadcasting and Cable, April 22, 2002, p. 10.
Crain's New York Business, January 27, 2003, p. 24.
Daily Variety, April 19, 2002, p. 1.
Ebony, October 2002, p. 86.
Hollywood Reporter, December 2, 2003.
Multichannel News, March 24, 2003, p. 8A.
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