Television and film executive
By the mid-2000s, despite a constant roller coaster ride in the ratings, the Fox channel emerged as one of the edgiest and most innovative networks on television. The reason for its success was a dedicated and creative staff, led by the charismatic Gail Berman. In 2000, Berman was named president of Fox Broadcasting, becoming the first female to hold the position. Given the cutthroat nature of television, and the fact that executives tended to change jobs often at Fox, many wondered just how long she would last. During her tenure with Fox, Berman helped resurrect the struggling network by introducing such Nielsen chart-toppers as American Idol, 24, and The O.C. In early 2004, in a not-so-surprising move, Berman was promoted to chairman of Fox Television Entertainment Group, a subsidiary of Fox Entertainment, a company worth a reported $31 billion. Even before she was put in charge of Fox's TV programming Berman was considered to be one of television's heavyweights. And soon Hollywood came calling: in March 2005 Berman left Fox and the world of television to become president of Paramount Pictures.
Fox chairman Gail Berman was born circa 1956 and attended the University of Maryland in College Park. Her first love was drama, and in 1978 she graduated with a major in theater. "I was a big Broadway snob," Berman told Kevin Downey of Broadcasting & Cable, "and I thought my life would only be in the theater. That was everything I dreamed about." Shortly after graduation Berman got a call from one of her college friends, Susan Rose, who had a plan to break into the business. Rose had just seen a production of Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat in Baltimore, and she proposed that Berman join forces with her to bring the play to Washington, D.C.
" One has to expect challenges, and then, at the end of the day, you'll have to be able to kick back and laugh at it all."
Although the plan was ambitious Berman did not hesitate, and she and Rose formed their own mini production company to raise funds. When they approached financiers, to appear more professional they pretended they had a secretary who was handling their correspondence. The show did so well in Washington that Berman and Rose moved it to New York, where it eventually opened on Broadway. In 1982, Joseph snagged seven Tony nominations, including the award for Best Musical. (Tony Awards are considered the most prestigious honor in American theater.) Berman had conquered Broadway just four years out of college; she was only twenty-five years old.
Berman and Rose continued their collaboration throughout the 1980s, producing both failures, such as Almost an Eagle (1982), and an array of Tony-nominated hits, including Hurlyburly (1984), Blood Knot (1985), and The Nerd (1987). Although Berman was passionate about the theater, and she was enjoying an enormous amount of success, the constant hours spent fund-raising started to take their toll. As she commented to Downey, "I got to Broadway very quickly and had good fortune getting me there. But, after having done it for a decade, I was completely burned out." When Berman was offered a job at a new cable venture that was just getting off the ground, she jumped at the opportunity for a change.
Berman the network slayer
The upstart cable venture was called the Comedy Channel and was an offshoot of the HBO (Home Box Office) network. Although Berman had absolutely no experience in television production, as she told Downey, she "was a huge television watcher and loved television." Berman's time with the Comedy Channel was short, but it proved to be an important testing ground. She learned the basics of the business and went from supervising producer to executive producer in just a few years. In the mid-1990s, when the Comedy Channel merged with MTV's Comedy Network to become Comedy Central, Berman again felt it was time to move on.
It was not only time for a career change, but also a location change. Berman's husband, Bill Masters, was a successful sitcom writer who worked on such hit shows as Murphy Brown and Seinfeld. Increasingly his work kept him on the West Coast, so the family decided to pack things up and move to Los Angeles. Once in L.A., Berman went to work for a television company called Sandollar, where she would first make her mark as a TV innovator. The industry newcomer pitched an unusual idea to the WB (Warner Brother's) network for a show about a high school vampire hunter named Buffy Summers. Based on an unsuccessful movie penned by a then-unknown Joss Whedon (c. 1965–) in 1992, executives were skeptical that a failed movie would attract viewers.
But Berman was persistent, a trait that she would quickly become known for, and in March of 1997 Buffy the Vampire Slayer debuted on the small screen. Over the next six years Buffy was a hit on both the WB and UPN networks, garnering a huge following and making a star out of the show's lead, Sarah Michelle Gellar (1977–). Berman, along with Whedon, served as executive producer of Buffy and the show's successful spinoff, Angel. According to future boss Sandy Grushow, who spoke with Michael Freeman of Electronic Media, Berman proved that she had "an innate ability to create programming that taps into what appeals to younger viewers. Simply put, Gail has her finger on very contemporary sensibilities."
From Regency to Fox
Based on her success with infusing new life into the WB, in 1998 Berman was tapped to head a new company called Regency Television, a joint venture of New Regency Enterprises and Fox Television Studios. During her two-year stint as president of Regency, Berman proved that Buffy was not a one-hit wonder. She was drawn to projects whose creators had a unique vision and real commitment, and she spearheaded such hits as the science-fiction cult drama Roswell for UPN and the quirky Malcolm in the Middle, which debuted in January of 2000 on Fox.
Like Buffy, Malcolm was not your run-of-the-mill program. Though it did feature a middle-class family, America had never before seen the likes of Malcolm Wilkerson, a boy with a genius IQ who lives with off-beat parents, Hal and Lois, and siblings, Francis, Reese, Dewey, and eventually, Jamie. Although unusual, Malcolm did become a hit both with critics and fans, making Regency into one of the hottest production companies in Hollywood. And almost overnight Berman became known as a risk-taker whose risks paid off. Fox Television executives took notice and set their sights on the maverick producer to help them full-time with their struggling network. At first Berman ignored the company's job offers but when Fox president Doug Herzog resigned in mid-2000, she finally decided to take the leap. The decision, however, was not an easy one. "This was a tough, emotional decision to make," Berman admitted to Joe Schlosser of Broadcasting & Cable. "When you are making a big, life-changing move, you want to make sure everything is considered and all of the bases are covered. But I think it was time for me to move on."
When Berman took over the reins in May 2000 she became Fox's first female president and the fourth executive to hold the position in the past six years. As president she was put in charge of programming and scheduling, reporting directly to Fox chairman Sandy Grushow, whose focus was on overall network strategy. During her first year at Fox, life was difficult for Berman. Although she had several years experience in television, she was now in charge of an army of executives. In addition, Fox was a tired network with sagging ratings. As a result, it was firmly entrenched in the number-three slot.
Under Grushow's tutelage Berman further sharpened her programming skills. She also brought her own unique style of management to the plate, becoming known as a real team player. Berman credits her management skills to her on-the-job experience as a mother of twins. As she told the Hollywood Reporter, "One of the great things about motherhood for me has been...that it puts everything in life in perspective. It reminds you that the highs (at work) are great, but they're not the highest achievements in life; the lows are sad, but they're not the lowest. If you can instill that sentiment in yourself and your staff—then as much as you want them to go out and be aggressive and competitive on the job, you have a better vantage point to go about it."
The Original American Idol: Kelly Clarkson
In 2003 fans swooned over the smooth styling of Ruben Studdard (1978–) and Clay Aiken (1978–), and in 2004 they put their phones on speed-dial for Fantasia Barrino (1984–), but it was a fresh-faced girl named Kelly Clarkson who won the very first American Idol title in 2002. Kelly Brianne Clarkson was born on April 24, 1982, in Fort Worth, Texas, but grew up in Burleson, Texas. While still in middle school she caught the attention of one of her teachers, who encouraged her to join the chorus. From then on Clarkson set her sights on a singing career.
In 2002 Clarkson, along with ten thousand other hopefuls, auditioned for a new Fox show called American Idol, which promised the winner a contract with a major record label. Because of her bubbly personality and strong vocals, the twenty-year-old Clarkson easily landed the audition. When she made it in the top thirty, Clarkson wowed the judges by belting out an impressive rendition of Respect, originally made famous by legendary singer Aretha Franklin (1942–). The performance pushed her into the final top ten. On September 4, 2002, after more than fifteen million Americans voted, Clarkson won the competition.
Clarkson's first single, "A Moment Like This," was released on October 5, 2002, and it set a music-industry record, shooting from number fifty-two to number-one on the Billboard charts in just one week. Six months later, on April 15, 2003, RCA launched Clarkson's first album, titled Thankful. The album debuted at number one and sold over two million copies. Throughout 2003 Clarkson continued her American Idol duties by touring with other Idol contestants and competing in the World Idol talent contest, where she placed second. She even appeared in a movie with fellow contestant Justin Guarini called Justin and Kelly, which bombed at the box office.
At the same time, Clarkson was making a name for herself in her own right. In 2004 she received a Grammy Award nomination for Best Female Pop Vocal Performance for her single, "Miss Independent." That same year she released her second album, Breakaway, which debuted at number three on the Billboard charts, and generated several top-ten singles, including "Since U Been Gone" and "Behind These Hazel Eyes." Clarkson also broke into television, appearing on the NBC drama American Dreams and as the musical guest on the late-night comedy Saturday Night Live in February 2005.
In addition, Berman gained a reputation for being a major advocate of writers and creators and someone who would give everything to protect the shows that she believed in. "Working for Gail is like being a baby cub behind a very, very strong mama bear," Linwood Boomer commented to Dulce Zamora of Variety. "She's incredibly protective and incredibly courageous." This courage helped Berman revamp the Fox lineup by pushing through a variety of shows, including the family-oriented Bernie Mac and the groundbreaking thriller 24, both of which premiered in November 2001.
Berman also developed a number of reality-based series for Fox, including the hugely popular American Idol, a singing competition that allows viewers to vote for the next pop superstar. More than ten thousand hopefuls auditioned for the first show, which aired in June 2002. Over the next eleven weeks, the thirty-two semifinalists were whittled down to twelve contenders, who competed against each other for votes in front of millions of viewers and three celebrity judges, including 1980's pop singer and dancer Paula Abdul (1962–), record producer Randy Jackson (1956–), and British record executive Simon Cowell (1959–). At the end of the first season over one hundred million viewers had called in to cast their votes, and on September 4, 2002, Kelly Clarkson was crowned the first American Idol, taking home a $1 million recording contract with RCA.
The continued success of American Idol and Fox's next reality hit, Joe Millionaire, which premiered in January 2003, helped rocket Fox to the top of the Nielsen rankings. By mid-2003 Berman had boosted Fox from number-three to the number-one most watched network on television. Berman continued to pump life into the network by introducing hit after hit, including the nighttime soap opera The O.C. (debuted August 2003), the comedy Arrested Development (debuted November 2003), and a bizarre reality show starring socialite Paris Hilton (1981–) called The Simple Life (debuted December 2003).
In January 2004, with Fox still competing closely with NBC for the number-one network slot, Sandy Grushow announced that he was stepping down as chairman. His natural replacement was Berman. Even though she had proved her staying power as president, insiders wondered if she could fill the shoes of a man like Grushow, who was known in the industry for his energetic style. Grushow, however, expressed no doubts. "This is a great opportunity for Gail to step up and demonstrate that she's capable of leading the company without anybody above her," the former chairman told Paige Albiniak of Broadcasting & Cable. "Frankly, I think she is capable. I'm going to be rooting for her every step of the way."
Flying solo for Berman proved to be a bit bumpy. After a series of successes, Fox was plagued by a number of misses during Berman's first year as chairman. The reality show My Big Fat Obnoxious Fiancé was a flop early in 2004, and several dramas didn't succeed, including Wonderfalls, cancelled in March 2004, and The Jury, which was cancelled in August that same year. Berman fared no better with comedies. For example, Oliver Beene, which was reminiscent of Malcolm, was cancelled in September 2004 after only twenty-two episodes.
Berman, however, remained unfazed into year two of her tenure. She told the Hollywood Reporter, "The philosophy of going for the fences remains a good philosophy that we must live by here at Fox. We need to be ambitious and adventurous and noisy ... and with that you're going to get some major successes, and you're also going to have some bruising failures." Another failure came in January 2005 when Fox launched the supernatural drama Point Pleasant, which focused on a mysterious orphan who just happens to be the daughter of the devil. Unfortunately, this show failed and was cancelled after only seven episodes. Berman remained committed and continued to help develop existing shows such as Arrested Development, which had become a favorite with both fans and critics. In March 2005, the program took home the Emmy Award for Best Comedy Series. The show was also nominated for the 2006 Emmy Award.
Television to movies
In March 2005 Berman's future swerved in a different direction when she made the move from television to film, taking the position of president of Paramount Pictures. As president, her duties would include all aspects of film development, including budgeting and casting. In a press release broadcast on PRNewswire, Brad Grey, chairman and chief executive officer of Paramount, was enthusiastic about having Berman join his team: "Gail is one of the most respected and talented executives in the entertainment industry, and her work as a producer has earned her enormous admiration among the creative community. She has a brilliant eye for compelling stories and a long track record of inspiring creativity and excellence."
For More Information
Adalian, Josef. "Fox Fire: Net's Entertainment Prexy Eschews the Comfort Zone in Helping Guide Fox to New High." Daily Variety (November 12, 2003): p. A6.
Adalian, Josef, and Michael Schneider. "Berman Settles in for Solo Run at Fox." Daily Variety (January 8, 2004): p. 11.
Albiniak, Paige. "Can Berman Make Fox Run?" Broadcasting & Cable (January 12, 2004): p. 1.
"Dialogue with Gail Berman." MediaWeek (April 12, 2004): p. 26.
Downey, Kevin. "Seeking that Singular Vision: Berman Has Kept Fox a Staunchly Innovative Network." Broadcasting & Cable (January 19, 2004): p. 6A.
Freeman, Michael. "Berman Moving to Fox." Electronic Media (May 29, 2000): p. 2.
Schlosser, Joe. "Berman Aims for Stability." Broadcasting & Cable (May 29, 2000): p. 10.
Zamora, Dulce. "Gail Berman: TV Topper Choreographs Own Fox Trot." Variety (June 2, 2003): p. A10.
"Gail Berman Appointed President of Paramount Pictures." Themovieinsider.com (March 31, 2005). http://www.themovieinsider.com/news/nid/1670/Gail_Berman_Appointed_President_of_Paramount_Pictures (accessed on August 10, 2005).
"Gail Berman, Fox Broadcasting." HollywoodReporter.com (December 2, 2003). http://www.hollywoodreporter.com/thr/interviews/article_display.jsp?vnu_content_id=2049659 (accessed on August 10, 2005).