Scary (TV) Smart: FearNet’s Robina Makes Horror Fun

1/24/2009 2:00 AM Eastern

Diane Robina’s encyclopedic knowledge of TV programming and movies has served her well as president of FearNet, the on-demand and online horror service, and at the various jobs she held before that at MTV Networks.

“She knows the product almost better than anybody else,” said Cyma Zarghami, president of the Nickelodeon/MTVN Kids and Family Group. “And when you talk to her, you get that feeling. You name a show, she knows what year it was. She’ll know who directed it. She’ll know what the spin-offs were.”

Robina, who got a career-making job at Nick at Nite by winning a contest, is a self-described “pop-culture junkie” who is passionate about TV.

The 48-year-old has employed the skills she developed at MTVN — where she not only worked at Nick at Nite but helped launch TV Land and relaunch TNN — to get FearNet off the ground on Halloween 2006. Robina is now FearNet president.

The horror service — a joint venture of Comcast, Sony Pictures Television and Lionsgate — has come a long way since its debut. The VOD service is in roughly 30 million homes, and currently ranks as the No. 1 horror Web site.

“I would like to launch a linear channel, as well, off of this product,” Robina said.

Robina, who was MTVN executive vice president of acquisitions before joining Comcast as president of Comcast-Sony Networks in July 2005, used to get yelled at by her parents for staying up until 4 a.m. to watch movies on TV at her home in Teaneck, N.J.

She had a number of gigs — including working as a cameraman for CNN — before landing a job at Viacom’s Nick at Nite in 1985. Robina won a contest to get the post of manager of acquisitions.

Nickelodeon, trying to find a roster of shows for its new primetime block — Nick at Nite — ran a TV promo soliciting applicants to compete for the programming job.

The funny spot claimed that the winner would not only get the job but also their own secretary — Zarghami played the secretary in the promo. Former Nick president Gerry Laybourne said 3,000 résumés were submitted for the contest.

“I won it,” Robina said. “For the longest time I used to be embarrassed by the fact … I just went in for an interview and happened to know enough about TV.”

Robina’s list of bosses and colleagues at Nick reads like a Who’s Who of cable: not only Zarghami and Laybourne but Anne Sweeney, Robina’s first boss and now president of the Disney-ABC Television Group; and former Nick chief Herb Scannell.

During her varied jobs at Nick at Nite and other MTVN networks, Robina’s task was to acquire rights to vintage and off-network TV shows, at the best price possible.

Scannell, now chairman of Next New Networks, said Robina secured content that became the foundation for new networks at MTVN, including TV Land.

“Diane was always on top of the markets, when things were becoming available, and her good relationships actually were very helpful,” Scannell said.

Robina negotiated contracts for key programming such as The Dick Van Dyke Show for Nick at Nite, he noted. And in perhaps her gutsiest move, Robina did a deal in 2001 for CBS’s then relatively new show CSI: Crime Scene Investigation, at a reported eye-popping $1.6 million an episode. She envisioned the show as a building block to help rebrand former country-music network TNN, where she was general manager.

“At the time people thought we were crazy to pick [CSI] up,” Robina said.

But CSI developed into a hit, in its first run on CBS and then on TNN — now Spike TV — as well.

“Diane is a no-nonsense person who loves and understands television like nobody’s business,” Laybourne said. “ There is nobody who understands TV better.”

Robina had been involved with several network launches, domestically and internationally, at Viacom, and she liked the experience. That was FearNet’s allure to her.

“What I like about start-ups, the part of it that appeals to me the most, is there are no rules,” Robina said.

And she remains enthused about working in the horror genre.

“Horror is a niche, but it’s a mainstream niche,” Robina said. “Horror is much bigger than sci-fi. Sci-fi actually appeals to a much narrower, more male audience. Horror is everybody.”

She praised her partners, Sony and Lionsgate, who have given FearNet access to their libraries. Robina has augmented that product with original Webisode series, by partnering with Ghost House Pictures — a venture that includes acclaimed director Sam Raimi.

Robina, and FearNet, have had some big changes for the New Year. The service relocated from Comcast’s headquarters in Philadelphia, moving to Los Angeles as part of the Comcast Entertainment Group, where Robina’s now reports to president Ted Harbert.

“I will be based in L.A.,” Robina said. “It’s going to be excellent for the business. This is an entertainment business, and also owned by two major movie studios. We were disadvantaged in not having our staff here on the ground in L.A.”