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Female execs face old song in new media

Despite early optimism that prevailed a few years ago, women are still finding it difficult to break into the executive ranks of the new media world.

At the advent of the age of new media, experts predicted that the new technology would be a boon, particularly for female producers and content providers.

Women in general, long overlooked by entertainment and media companies, were turning to the Internet--just as they did to cable television back in the early 1980s--to catch news, information and entertainment that was relevant to their lives. So it seemed natural that female professionals would find a niche in that market, too.

However, since the dot-com world suffered its own annus horriblus in 2000, when hundreds of online businesses failed, old media has begun to acquire the most viable of new media companies as a means of brand building and brand extension. With one notable exception--America Online's acquisition of Time Warner--traditional media companies are the most obvious driving force behind multimedia content on the Internet. The bad news is that it's still difficult for women to find a home in the new media world.

They are also making inroads to provide content to a new generation of wireless information appliances, according to Christina Mohr, managing director at Salomon Smith Barney and co-head of its media group.

The bad news, though, is that it's still difficult for women to find a home in the new media world. Some women have managed to surmount the obstacles, and a few of them spoke at the Dynamic Women in Business conference at Harvard Business School. They included Melanie Bell, director of business development for Virgin Entertainment Group; Betty Cohen, president of AOL Time Warner's Cartoon Network Worldwide; Sarah Cotsen, vice president of interactive ventures for HBO Online, a unit of AOL Time Warner; and Beth Lenahan, vice president of client marketing and services for the Walt Disney Internet Group.

All four panelists found their media homes through a variety of paths, yet conveyed similar messages to the audience, which was perhaps one of the largest during the daylong conference.

"Persistence really, really counts in the entertainment industry," stressed HBO's Cotsen, who began her post-graduate career in investment banking and quickly became frustrated by her various thwarted attempts to work in entertainment. "They all wanted to put me in the finance department," she sighed. A career segue into consumer products marketing at Johnson & Johnson gave her the track record to get noticed and hired by Turner Entertainment, she said.

"I have a passion for the 'forum,'" said Cartoon Network's Cohen. The most important thing she does, she said, is assemble a team of people who can, for example, "conceptualize why 'Power Puff Girls' is so successful," referring to Cartoon Network's newest hit. The show features a group of pre-teens made of what Cohen called "sugar and spice and everything nice, with a dash of Formula X."

"You have to have a love for entertainment in some form. If you don't, you probably don't belong there," added Cohen, whose own professional path began at a political advertising agency. Building on the skills from her previous positions, she jumped to the Cable Health Network, which evolved into Lifetime.

In Bell's circumstance, it was "pure luck" that got her into media and entertainment. She had been in Booz-Allen & Hamilton's media and entertainment practice before going to Virgin. "I can teach you about strategy, but I cannot teach you to love music," she told the audience.

Responding to a question about the future of Oxygen Media--the television, Internet and publishing company backed by a consortium led by Oprah Winfrey--all the panelists were surprisingly silent when asked to address a possible turnaround strategy for the company.

"We all know the people who work there," admitted Mohr. Oxygen launched a year ago as a fusion of old and new media with the mission to provide a variety of information sources for women, about women and by women.

However, Cohen suggested that Oxygen's apparent inability to make any headway in the media-fusion horse race might be based on the fact that the company still needs to find out what the realities of women are. So, "What do women really want?" seems to be an eternal question.

"A lot of women do not want to do 'women things,'" she observed.

Mohr capped the discussion on a mildly philosophical note. "Is being female all the affinity there is to be marketed, too?" she asked the room.

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