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Bridget Baker: Fierce But Genial

5/21/2012 12:01 AM Eastern

Bridget Baker did her best to talk
broadcaster NBC out of launching its first cable network,
then called the Consumer News and Business Channel
and now known as CNBC. She failed. Instead, skeptical
Baker wound up taking a job handling affiliate sales for
the startup. And she has spent the rest of her career at
the Peacock Network’s cable unit, and is now NBCUniversal’s
President of TV Networks Distribution. Baker is
in charge of carriage for a multibillion-dollar cable stable,
a portfolio that she helped create from scratch.

“I’ve really enjoyed the asset build,” she said.

The Alaska native is now tasked with overseeing U.S.
distribution for a content portfolio that includes not only
CNBC, but also USA Network, Bravo, E!, Style Network,
Sprout, Syfy, The Golf Channel, MSNBC, Oxygen, the network-
owned NBC and Telemundo TV stations, and Olympic
content on cable and broadband.

COMFORT LEVEL

Baker was put in an unusual position in January 2011 when
NBCU was bought by one of her customers: Comcast. She
was familiar with its executives, as they were with her.

“Bridget knows this business, understands how to negotiate,
and lives by the principle that true success requires
the utmost honesty and integrity,” Steve Burke, NBCUniversal’s
president and CEO, said. “The best measure of a
leader is not only in what they do in business, but in how
they treat others while doing it. In this regard, Bridget is
an exemplary role model for our industry.”

Baker began her career on Capitol Hill, working on the
staff of the late Sen. Ted Stevens of Alaska. But she decided
she wanted to move into the private sector. She got a job offer
from Gannett, but was intrigued by TV and instead opted to
move to California to work for a startup cable network that a
friend had told her about, The Fashion Channel.

Baker traveled all over the country to negotiate carriage
deals for the network. The Fashion Channel launched in
1987 with 17 million subscribers, the largest basic-cable
debut up to that time.

Fashion Channel tanked in 1988, and Baker went back
home to Alaska for some salmon fishing and to visit her family.

It was there that she got a call from New York, from an
NBC vice president of corporate development who was
contacting her on behalf of Tom Rogers. Like Baker, he
was another former Capitol Hill staffer. He wanted to hire
Baker to handle affiliate sales for CNBC.

She tried to discourage NBC officials from rolling out a
cable network.

Baker said she told them: “I with 100% accuracy know
that west of the Mississippi River, there is not a single open
channel for a new network owned by a broadcaster. And
I may not have learned much, but I’ve learned one thing:
Cable operators hate broadcasters. So what you guys really
should do is think about a different business. I literally said
that. Tom loves to tell this story today.”

Still, she flew to Manhattan to meet with Rogers. After the
interview, she ran into then Tele-Communications Inc. executive
Fred Vierra on Madison Avenue.

She told him about NBC’s crazy plan to launch a cable network,
and he said, “I don’t know, Bridge. Why don’t you give
it a whirl?”

So she did, starting in September 1988. Baker worked with
Rogers and Bob Wright to get CNBC launched in April 1989.
When the network acquired bankrupt rival Financial News
Network’s assets in 1991, it doubled its subscriber base and
emerged the victor in the business-news category.

Baker also had to convince distributors to continue to
carry what was once America’s Talking, but was repositioned
as MSNBC. That network now beats the vaunted
CNN in the ratings.

Baker is known as a savvy negotiator. In fact, one of the
toughest MSO programming executives ever, the late Fred
Dressler of Time Warner Cable, recognized her skills, according
to Melinda Witmer, the cable operator’s chief programming
officer.

Before Witmer flew to California to meet Baker for the first
time, Dressler warned her about Baker.”

“It’s very funny,” Witmer said. “Fred Dressler, whose respect
was hard-earned across the table, he said to me, ‘Don’t
be fooled by those big blue eyes and the friendly nature …
Don’t be fooled by all that. She’ll get you if you let your guard
down.’ Fred had a tremendous amount of respect for her intellect
and her capabilities. She does have a very charming
and disarming manner, so he was wise to have warned me
to have my guard up.”

A forewarned Witmer, who had to work on a renewal with
NBCU, hit it off with Baker over a long lunch. Witmer said
that she and Baker have been “fierce adversaries” at times.

Near-term, Baker is focused on securing proper compensation
for NBCU’s programming.

“The portfolio that I represent, that we represent out there,
is best-in-class,” Baker said. “NBCUniversal is the mostwatched
media company … We’ve got to make sure the value
that we’re bringing to the marketplace is actually being
acknowledged by the marketplace.”

FIELD EXPERTISE

Even with her promotion as NBCU’s first president of TV Networks
in 2006, Baker still goes out in the field to negotiatecontracts.

“This is critical business and these are big deliverables to
the company,” she said. “And I’ve got to earn my keep.”

Baker said that she savors the challenge of closing a deal
with an affiliate, but she acknowledged that affiliate sales
work entails stress and pressure.

“You have to up for the volley of it,” Baker said. “We have
been in one continual chess game. And every move that NBCUniversal
has made on the board, I’ve been here for that.”

She still has a fan in Witmer.

“Given how contentious these kinds of negotiations can
be, I actually think Bridget … is always calm, always pleasant,
always listening, always trying to solve and to hear your
business needs,” Witmer said. “But when she’s going to say
no, she’s an immovable force.”

 

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