Contractual obligations

A look at women making strides in business affairs.

Digital downloads. Branded entertainment. Streaming video, video-on-demand, broadband and mobile platforms. After years of talk about network television's need to reinvent itself, the transformation is under way, forced by the onslaught of new technologies and new competition.

At a time when TV dealmakers are challenged to predict the future, find the upside and mitigate near-term disasters all at once, it's noteworthy that much of this head-scratching work is being handled at the highest levels by women.

"Digital is the overlay on the entire business right now," says Deborah Barak, executive vp business affairs for CBS Paramount Network Television Entertainment Group.

There's a greater intellectual challenge to even routine matters these days, which has been stimulating to business affairs teams because of the lack of past precedent and protocol to guide decision-making.

"Just a few years ago, I would know the answer to everything that might come up on a deal," says Beth Roberts, executive vp business affairs for NBC Universal Entertainment and Cable Entertainment. "Now, we're scrambling to figure out what's fair, what's reasonable and what makes business sense."

Jana Winograde, executive vp business affairs for ABC Entertainment, was one of a handful of ABC and Apple executives who huddled in a conference room for four days in fall 2005 to hammer out the Walt Disney Co.'s groundbreaking licensing agreement that made ABC and Disney Channel programs available for download from Apple's iTunes music store platform. Winograde says the key for ABC and Disney is to take calculated risks in small doses.

"Sometimes, you've just got to take a leap of faith and say, 'We're all intelligent people, and if we found out that the agreement we're making today is based on faulty assumptions, we'll revisit,'" Winograde says.

The fact that it is female executives who are running business affairs at three of the Big Four networks reflects the steady influx of J.D.-equipped women into the business affairs and legal affairs disciplines in the 1980s and '90s. Perhaps most significantly, in a sign of a gender-blind meritocracy taking root, the business affairs chiefs at ABC, CBS and NBC are each considered rising stars in their companies.

"In certain respects, being a woman in this business is a nonevent," Barak says. "It's the relationships you establish and your strategic approach (to dealmaking) that keep it interesting."