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20th TV's Dana Walden On Her Career-Changing 'Jerry Maguire' Moment

Dana Walden: Chairman, 20th Century Fox Television
Austin Hargrave

The gutsy mastermind behind 'Glee,' 'Homeland' and 'Modern Family' opens up about her PR past, the Peter Chernin spectacle and her relationship Ryan Murphy.

This story first appeared in the Dec. 14 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine.

"Hey, everyone look," shouts Anne Hathaway, in character as Homeland's Carrie Mathison on Saturday Night Live, "I made a drawing of me and Brody kissing" -- she pauses, her bottom lip quivering as she points to a corkboard cluttered with clues -- "for the investigation."

Taran Killam, playing former P.O.W. and Carrie love interest Nicolas Brody, hollers back in an angered tone: "Carrie! That's a secret that only everyone knows."

The Homeland sketch, which premiered on SNL three days earlier, is being replayed for the 50 or so 20th Century Fox Television employees gathered Nov. 13 for a weekly staff meeting. Chairman Dana Walden and her army of executives are now roaring with laughter as the five-minute spoof continues.

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"Any time you get a show like Saturday Night Live willing to devote an entire sketch to a show, you know you're doing something right," says Walden, 48, who had been given a heads-up about the skit by Hathaway's manager (Hathaway had reached out to Claire Danes earlier in the week as well). And Walden, a 20-year veteran of the News Corp.-owned company, is no stranger to doing things right, as evidenced by her intimate involvement in such cultural phenomenons as The X-Files, Ally McBeal, 24 and Glee during her career.

Today, she and fellow chairman Gary Newman oversee 236 employees, two cable offshoots (Fox 21 and Fox Television Studios) and 34 series in production, including New Girl, Sons of Anarchy and billion-dollar animated franchises The Simpsons and Family Guy. Their studio has established a reputation for big swings, artistic risks and a stable of such A-list creators as Ryan Murphy, Howard Gordon, Steve Levitan and Seth MacFarlane. As if that wasn't enough, 20th TV became the first studio in more than a decade to be behind both the Emmy-winning comedy (ABC's Modern Family) and Emmy-winning drama (Showtime's Homeland), which swept in their categories as well.

When the duo was first plucked to run 20th TV 13 years ago, Walden was the creative force to Newman's business acumen. These days, she moves fluidly between art and finance. "She can go through a script and dissect it to a scary extent, like, 'this works, this doesn't work, move this up here, change this,' and then five minutes later she's talking about DVR sales in Thailand," marvels Murphy, who adds of the woman with whom he's grown extraordinarily close: "I have always had a very strange relationship with my mother, and while it sounds very emotionally crazy to say, I feel that I now know what it's like to be properly mothered by somebody thanks to Dana."

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Walden likes to say her own education in TV began when she was a child glued to such shows as Speed Racer and Happy Days. "Television was definitely my babysitter," she jokes of her Studio City upbringing. Although her parents' professions were somewhat removed from the entertainment industry -- her mother was a professional dancer; her father a successful entrepreneur -- Walden got an early taste of Hollywood through her dad's membership at the Friars Club. "My dad used to take me there after school, and I would sit at the front desk and help connect calls," she says. "I used to love paging people. My favorite was, 'President Milton Berle, please call 301.' "

Upon graduating with a communications degree from USC, Walden landed a gig as Larry Goldman's assistant at the Bender, Goldman & Helper publicity firm. The trouble was, she acknowledges, "I was an awful assistant." After working on campaigns for such shows as Star Trek: The Next Generation and The Arsenio Hall Show, Walden moved in-house at Hall's production company before scoring a PR gig at 20th TV in 1992.

Two years later, her career path took a sharp turn during a company retreat in Santa Barbara. She arrived with the intention of making a bold -- if risky -- presentation about the studio's troubles because, as she saw it, she had little to lose. "I had met Peter Chernin a number of times before the retreat, and he would routinely stick out his hand and say, 'Nice to meet you.' I was driving there and thought, that guy is going to stick his hand out and say, 'Nice to meet you' again, and it's going to make me really mad. I thought, 'I'm invisible to him, and I'm not going out like that,' " she says, laughing now as she recounts how she stood up and suggested the studio had a dated strategy and was losing deals for lack of aggression.

The "Jerry Maguire moment," as it since has been dubbed, earned Walden a spot next to Chernin at dinner that night. Impressed by her instincts, the man who would become her mentor suggested she was better suited for the creative side of the business, where she could have a real impact on the shows. He called Walden's then-boss, Peter Roth, and suggested he immediately make room for her in the programming department. "I said to Peter, 'She's too smart to be doing publicity, and frankly, she's got better and stronger opinions than all of your creative executives," recalls Chernin, who at that time had just added the TV studio to his purview. Walden quickly was named vp current programming.

In the years that followed, Walden continued her ascent up the corporate ladder, taking the reins at the studio in 1999. Not long after, she gave birth to her first child, Aliza, now 12, and a second daughter, Casey, three years later with her marketing consultant husband, Matt. Despite a schedule that has her up by 6 a.m. watching rough cuts on the treadmill, Walden maintains that her family is her No. 1 priority. She actively is involved at her children's schools and carves out time to travel as a family. (Ski trips to Deer Valley, Utah, are a favorite.)

In recent months, she has overseen the reinvention of Glee and American Horror Story, inked multiyear deals with the cast of Modern Family (following protracted negotiations) and set up a pod with Homeland co-creator and longtime 20th TV producer Gordon, whose relationship with Walden dates back to her time in publicity on The X-Files. "She was always the person who both held my hand the tightest and slapped me on the back of the head the hardest, and that still really defines our relationship," he says, noting that it is Walden's opinion, approval and input that he seeks out more than anyone else's.

Ask Newman to pinpoint what it is that differentiates his longtime partner, and he homes in on her instincts, charisma and infectious energy, recalling a dinner at another corporate retreat a few years earlier that devolved into several execs -- led by Walden -- doing cartwheels in the restaurant. He adds, "People want to work with her, they want to hang out with her, and they want to have her in their corner."