TV Fanatic: IFC’s Caserta Chose Cable Over Dance — and Soared1/25/2010 2:00 AM Eastern
Executive Vice President
Jennifer Caserta grew up “obsessed with television” and, as part of the MTV generation, “fascinated by cable.” Yet, facing the crossroads, she nearly chose a different path than the one that has made her IFC’s executive vice president and general manager.
“Television was not my first career choice,” recalled the 38-year-old New Jersey native, who brims with enthusiasm whether discussing her childhood or her learning curve at IFC. “I went to the High School of Performing Arts in Manhattan as a dance major. Afterwards I had to make a decision about whether to pursue dance as a career.”
Looking back from the vantage point of her current post — “the best job I’ve ever had” — the choice to take media and marketing at Hunter College was the right one.
“I knew right away I wanted to be a marketer,” she said. “I loved the breaks between the shows— the on-air promotions, the messaging — as much as the shows.” (That’s still true today. Caserta sometimes watches IFC, even though she’s seen the programming, just to see what comes in between. “I love dissecting the breaks,” she said.)
Caserta gained marketing experience at the Radio Advertising Bureau, Westwood One, Food Network and Oxygen Media before reaching a turning point as vice president of ad sales marketing for Court TV. “Every step opened my eyes to other things,” she said. “At Court TV, I moved into a network with wide distribution that had been around but was trying to reinvent itself with its advertisers. It prepared me for the future in a huge way.”
Evan Shapiro, now president of IFC & Sundance Channel, hired her at Court TV on a recommendation that he was initially reluctant to follow. “I went into the meeting not wanting to hire her, which made for a very awkward first conversation,” he recalled. But, he said, Caserta is “the most tenacious person I’ve ever met”; she followed up with a phone call the next night that went for over two hours. “By the end I’d decided she was someone I wanted on my team.”
David Epstein, now senior vice president of sales planning for NBC Universal Cable Entertainment, was working at Court TV when Caserta arrived. “She’s upbeat and enthusiastic and she’s a TV person — we’d talk about TV trivia, and there are not a lot of women who know TV trivia like she does,” he said. “So even before I knew whether she was capable and smart, I liked her as a person. But then she is smart and has the talent too.”
In 2004, Rainbow Media brought Caserta in as vice president of marketing for IFC. She started working her way up the marketing chain but, by this point, she knew she wanted “to have it all” — to be involved in every aspect of a network’s being. Shapiro, by then at IFC, recognized this and recommended to their bosses that she become general manager for its music network, Fuse. “It was a great challenge for her,” he said. “You can only grow so far under your mentor. Then you have to spread your wings.”
Caserta was ready to fly. “I did a lot of interesting things and expanded my portfolio,” she said. “It was an opportunity to prove that I was more than just a marketer, not just to the executives at Rainbow, but to myself.”
Caserta learned how to run a business, which she said is very different than managing a department. An optimist, she had found it easy to make friends, motivate and mentor on the job. But at Fuse, “for the first time I had to have tough conversations with people,” she said.
When Shapiro began thinking about succession planning at IFC, he said, “I stole her back,” making Caserta IFC’s executive vice president of marketing, communications, scheduling and alternative programming while she waited for the big prize, IFC’s GM job.
Finally, in July 2008, she ascended to the GM spot. She spent the first six months assessing the entire network. “I took a long, hard look. You have to resist the impulse to just make changes, and now I was looking at things from a larger perspective.”
One area Caserta wanted to emphasize was alternative, “off-kilter” comedy and culture in the network’s brand. “I don’t fancy myself a programmer but I love having input,” she said. “I think I have a good sensibility. I’m not a male 18-49 but I consume television like one. I don’t watch television like a girl. And beyond my own taste, I’m able to remove myself and think about what the audience wants.”
Among the original programming projects that debuted last year was the comedic musical miniseries Bollywood Hero. But nothing generated more buzz for the IFC than the epic six-part Monty Python documentary Almost the Truth (The Lawyers Cut) and live Python reunion. “When I was presented with this, I immediately thought this could put IFC on the map,” she said. “Talk about your off-kilter sensibility, this matched perfectly with us. And the Pythons are still relevant today.”
Meanwhile, Caserta was also dealing with the collapsing economy. “Even if our business is strong, our partners are affected,” she said. “We have to be more resourceful and become more flexible.”
IFC is finding innovative ways to work with partners, like getting Bollywood star Chris Kattan to star in a series of interstitial spots promoting the Palm Pre during Bollywood Hero. “We’re using our talent and integrating our advertising more,” she said. “The way things were done in the past is not the way things will be done in the future.”