Former Food Network president shares her business tips
August 3, 2012By Alison Satake
The former Food Network president responsible for ushering in a new world of reality lifestyle TV and introducing celebrity chefs such as Paula Deen and Rachael Ray now lives in Wrightsville Beach. Judy Girard, who also headed up Lifetime Television before the Food Network, went on to lead HGTV. She retired here in 2008 with her husband, actor Richie Karron.
As an Emmy-award winning television executive, Girard used to judge success on the tens of millions of viewers she reached across the country. Now, she volunteers at the public library and hospital, helping one person at a time.
She sat down with the Greater Wilmington Business Journal’s Alison Lee Satake to talk about meeting Julia Child, firing Anthony Bourdain and other behind-the-scenes accounts of working in television since 1968.
GWBJ: How did you know what was going to work on the Food Network?
JG: The Food Network [which launched in 1993] was a major failure for its first 10 years.
The concept was a CNN of food so you would have chefs cooking live on the hour and half-hour, and they did that for about eight or nine years. And the audience just never got very large, and the distribution never got very large. They couldn’t figure out why. The company I worked for came in and bought it and put us in there [in 1998] with a team and said, ‘Do what you need to do.’ It took us about a year to figure it out.
It wasn’t actually about the food at all. It was about entertainment around the food. It wasn’t that we were geniuses to figure that out. It was that we sat and said, ‘Who has done this before us successfully?’ And there were only two people – Julia Child and Graham Kerr. We went back and looked at their tapes – I actually went over and talked to Julia at one point – and got very clear direction from watching them that it’s about the entertainment.
Nobody, in most part, is going to make what they’re going to make. It’s about just watching them and maybe picking up some techniques along the way of cooking. But their appeal was everybody who doesn’t really care about cooking to heavy duty foodies to people who just want to be entertained and got tired of the news. Once we did that, the Food Network just took off.
GWBJ: What does it take to make a successful show? You found household names such as Rachael Ray, Giada De Laurentiis and Paula Deen.
JG: The talent, you just named it. The first and foremost thing is the talent. Are they good communicators or can they be trained to be good communicators? What is the brand? Like any other product, do they have a brand that you can put easily into a sentence? And is that brand attractive to enough people? And then really good production people who can figure out how to execute that brand.
GWBJ: What was your role – the ideas person, the budget person?
JG: I’m 90 percent strategic and creative. … It was a group strategy, and I had a great, great team of six or seven people with me who were really fabulous. But I think what I learned to do well over the years, or maybe just had an affinity for, was manage up. You know, to get the ideas and the budgets through to whoever I was reporting to.
Always except one or two times in my life, I’ve always loved who I worked for. I learned that many, many years ago at NBC [when] Colin Powell came and gave a diversity seminar. … He said put yourself in the shoes of a CEO – I’ve never forgotten this, it was such a powerful lesson. He said that CEO is picking his second in command that might be his successor. He’s going to spend an awful lot of hours a week with that person. Who do you think he’s going to pick?
Somebody he likes, somebody who communicates well with him, somebody he has an affinity for. That’s who he’s going to pick, and it’s his right within the management of a company. And I’ve always remembered that. His final point on that was, if you don’t like the person or the culture at the top, do not make that your career company. If you can’t relate to that very top person and that’s where you want to go, go somewhere else and pick a culture. Don’t assume you’ll change the culture or that somebody is going to do something ‘right’ or that you’ll earn your way there.
GWBJ: What was your background and resources that you drew upon to be successful in business?
JG: I was a terrible, terrible student. I mean the worst. I was a D student, mostly F student. I wanted to go to college to get away. But no college would have me. So Ithaca College had started a radio/television program, and they were looking for some women. That’s how I got in. I didn’t pick television.
What I found when I got there, my roommate was someone who went on to be the first female anchor in this country. Jessica Savitch was my college roommate. She died an early death, but she broke so many barriers before she died. She had such a passion for it. Guys always said she could only do the weather – she couldn’t do the news. She said, ‘Let’s make our own way.’ So, I paired up with her, and we started producing things.
What I found was what took me down in high school was not having a focus, not having great attention and not having the perseverance to stay with anything for very long. Those are great qualities in television.
GWBJ: What was one of the first things you did when you joined the Food Network?
JG: I went down to meet with [parent company HGTV]. I had never watched HGTV in my life. I’m not a food person or a cook person. I kept saying, ‘I don’t know why you guys want me to do this. This is not a good idea.’ They said, ‘No, no, no, you’ll figure it out.’ They said, ‘Here’s the formula: it’s all about the content. We don’t want a personality. We don’t want to pay personalities. We don’t want the problem of personalities. Just follow the HGTV formula.’
I went home and watched HGTV and thought, ‘This is kind of what the Food Network is doing. They’re just doing it better.’ But it was hard to argue, because HGTV was so successful. Then, I looked at it again and said, ‘You know what, it’s not the HGTV formula.’
And I was able to convince them to give us enough money to do a year of programming. Emeril [Lagasse] was on staff. We knew we had a personality. We weren’t sure about Bobby Flay, who was on staff. We weren’t sure about Mario Batali.
Those three guys were already under contract. We knew that Emeril could probably pull off more entertainment than the other guys. And that’s what we did.
GWBJ: Did everyone love the program changes at the Food Network?
JG: No. Part of the fallout is the food world itself. The James Beard world, the restaurant owners, the hardcore foodies were furious at the Food Network because we were commercializing something they felt the network should not.
It was very similar when I went to Lifetime, and the women’s movement was in full gear. Gloria [Steinem] was in full power, and Betty Friedan and Marie Wilson at the Ms. Foundation. And Lifetime was television for women. They pitched us and prodded us on various movies and shows and movement things, and we never did any of it. It was really uncomfortable.
GWBJ: Anthony Bourdain has spoken out against the celebrity chef phenomenon.
JG: I think that’s more show business than anything. I like Anthony. I was the one who fired him. I was the one who said, ‘This isn’t working.’ And he and I had the best meeting that day. It wasn’t at all contentious.
GWBJ: Why did you fire him?
JG: His show was costing a fortune, because it was all overseas. He’s loose and free. It just wasn’t kicking in the ratings to sustain those costs. But I thought he was a great talent. By the way, I think he’s a great author.
GWBJ: If you could do it all over again now with all of the advances women have made in the workforce, would you have aimed higher?
JG: No, I wouldn’t have because I knew myself. And I knew when you get to those really high levels it was all about numbers, systems, politics, everything I was bad at. I just knew that wasn’t a good thing for me.
You didn’t ask me about my biggest mistake.
GWBJ: What was your biggest mistake, and what did you learn?
JG: As [Food Network] talent wanted to up their ante, the only way to keep the talent costs relatively low, was to let them keep their merchandise and book rights. That became a huge loss.
We didn’t catch it. We never caught it. They ended up making so much more money on their merchandise and their books that we ended up paying them very little to do the Food Network. It became their promotional platform. Who knew that once you put them on the Food Network, that platform would become more and more powerful, and it would explode?
The company decided the way to correct this was to buy a shopping network ourselves and become the QVC/HSN of lifestyle merchandise. Sounds like a good idea, right? I thought it was a great idea. I said, ‘I’d like to run it. I think it’d be a lot of fun.’
Three years later, 900 people lost their jobs. It was a classic case of a company and a manager getting into a business they didn’t know and didn’t understand.
GWBJ: How would you describe your philosophy in business?
JG: It’s all about the people. It’s all about: do you have the right people in the right job and do they work well with each other and do they have enough freedom to do what they’re doing, period.
Everything else from budgets to strategy plans to reviews is so secondary.