Courtesy Lifetime Television
Betty Cohen has always seen television’s big picture. As the architect of Cartoon Network, she parlayed a wacky idea—a channel devoted to animation—into one of the great cable television success stories of the nineties. By supplementing a sprawling library of vintage toons with an impressive slate of original programming, Cohen spun Cartoon Network into a global juggernaut. She also had the foresight to realize that her audience extended beyond the toddler set: ergo, Adult Swim, the brilliantly branded late-night spin-off that regularly steals those highly coveted young males away from the likes of Letterman and Leno. Branding—the notion that in the cluttered landscape of cable, content means nothing without presentation—has been Cohen’s specialty. A lifelong believer in the transformative power of promotion, she has shaped some of cable’s biggest franchises with imagination, vision, and an intuitive grasp of why viewers chose one channel over another. “My background is to ask, ‘How do you engage people in brand with ideas that are bigger than just a single show?’“ she says. Small wonder then that before becoming the “Queen of Cartoons,” Cohen was the marketing maven behind the launches of Cable Health Network (the precursor of Lifetime, of which she would later become president and CEO), Nickelodeon, and TNT. As Cohen herself puts it: “Part of what makes me visionary is that I don’t see only what’s in front of me. I can try and see where things are headed.”
Even as a teenager growing up in Racine, Wisconsin, Cohen knew she wanted to work in the entertainment industry. In high school, she acted in and directed plays and wrote her senior paper on the Children’s Television Workshop. She majored in communications at Stanford University, where she started the school’s first news show and spent a semester abroad in England. It was Cohen’s exposure to the cultural landscape of London that inspired her to think about media in new ways. “That was a very formative time,” she says. “It helped me to understand that what we see and do and how we finance things and our regulatory system in this country isn’t the only way people operate.” In 1977, Cohen began her first postcollege job as a production manager for San Francisco’s Public Media Center, an ad agency for public-service clients. Tasked with producing a variety of PSAs, she soon learned that her strengths lay not in small details but in the larger picture. “I was the person who had the perspective to see where the project should head, rather than writing the first draft,” she explains.
Cohen applied that knowledge as she blazed through the burgeoning cable industry in her twenties and thirties. As the first manager of marketing for Lifetime precursor Cable Health Network, which she joined in 1982, she helped to establish the fledgling network’s footing with female viewers. From 1984 to 1988, she served as director of on-air promotion and interstitial programming for Nickelodeon where, faced with an open evening block, she took a motley assortment of classic shows, sprinkled it with her marketing magic, and yielded Nick At Night, “the Network for the TV Generation.” Bolstered by a highly creative, tongue-in-cheek advertising campaign, what was ostensibly a group of old reruns became, through Cohen’s vision, a television nirvana for the baby boomer parents of the channel’s daytime viewers. Pure genius.
In 1988, Cohen joined TNT (Turner Network Television), where, as director of marketing and general manager, she created the new network’s brand by establishing it as much more than a collection of old movies that Ted Turner had bought up from an aging Hollywood studio, MGM. She also launched TNT’s original programming and its NFL and NBA packages, thereby affirming the channel’s appeal with its targeted male demographic. Pleased with her accomplishments, Turner promoted Cohen to senior vice president and charged her with devising a prototype for a niche channel that would showcase another library he had purchased: that of animation powerhouse Hanna-Barbera, home to the likes of Fred Flintstone, Scooby Doo, and Yogi Bear.
Launched in 1992, Cartoon Network was initially perceived as little more than a twenty-four-hour outlet for the sort of kiddie-friendly fare that had been typically relegated to Saturday mornings. From the onset, however, Cohen had another goal in mind: to make Cartoon Network “the most creatively and financially successful brand and home for animated entertainment in the world.” Drawing not only from the Hanna-Barbera catalog, but from the MGM (Tom and Jerry) and pre-1948 Warner Bros. (Bugs Bunny and friends) vaults, which Turner also owned, Cohen gradually augmented the dizzying array of beloved toons with an ambitious slate of original programming. Named president of Cartoon Network Worldwide in August 1994, Cohen led all business operations, creative direction, programming strategy and marketing for the franchise, while also launching Boomerang, a sister channel devoted to vintage cartoons (they are, she says, “the most truthful form of entertainment”), and overseeing the programming strategies and brand marketing for several international versions of Cartoon Network. Today, the little cartoon channel that she shepherded into being stands as one of the most successful entertainment brands in cable television history, a global behemoth currently available in more than eighty-seven million U.S. homes and one hundred-sixty countries.
Much of Cartoon Network’s success is attributable to the quirky slate of first-run series that Cohen brought to the air. In 1994, inspired by David Letterman’s move from NBC to CBS, she oversaw the debut of Space Ghost Coast to Coast, a meta-talk show in which a washed-up superhero from the Hanna-Barbera vault interviews (and typically assails) real-life celebrities. Other originals quickly followed, including Dexter’s Laboratory in 1996, The Powerpuff Girls in 1998, and Aqua Teen Hunger Force in 2000. The latter became the anchor of a cutting-edge, late-night animation block, Adult Swim, which brought the highly coveted young male demographic to the network in droves. “I never said just ‘cable network.’ I never said ‘kids network.’ I said ‘world,’ and I said ‘brand.’ I defined the vision broader,” Cohen points out. “You become as big or as small as you define your future.”
In 2001, having overseen the phenomenal growth of the network brand and the popularization of its characters, both classic and original, across multiple entertainment platforms, Cohen stepped down from her post as head of Cartoon Network Worldwide, telling a reporter, “I was afraid I would die the queen of cartoons.” She did, however, remain within the AOL Time Warner family, developing multiplatform programs and services aimed at teens and young adults. She also continued to lead Turner Learning, the company’s educational initiative. “The best way to drive multiplatform media businesses [is] to have a foot in a fully distributed network,” she remarked at the time. “A lot of what gets traffic on [Internet portals] is how they annotate what’s going on in mass culture. In the same way that TV didn’t replace movies or radio—I feel like all this multiplatform technology is not going to make TV go away.”
In 2005, Cohen returned to Lifetime—this time as president and CEO—where she set about re-vamping the franchise with a more personalized focus. “My passion lies in developing branded content and related services that entertain, inspire, and inform audiences around the world, and I am thrilled to have the opportunity to do just that at Lifetime,” she told a reporter at the time. Assuming control over the day-to-day operations of the company’s three networks—Lifetime Television, Lifetime Movie Network, and Lifetime Real Women—as well as Lifetime Radio for Women, Lifetime Home Entertainment, and Lifetime Online, Cohen endeavored to “develop more crisply the attitude of Lifetime, what its point of view is about women, so that maybe we can get into segmentation of different types of women audiences and build the day to be even stronger than it is right now.”
One of Cohen’s first executive decisions was to remove Lifetime’s long-standing tagline, “Television for Women,” explaining that “women don’t want to be told what to think; they don’t want us telling them what is television for women. They want to decide for themselves and we want to be there for them.” Along with a renewed push to retain the passionate following for Lifetime’s weekly made-for-television movies, Cohen sought to expand the channel’s audience beyond its median viewer age of forty-nine by acquiring syndication rights to such younger-skewing series as Desperate Housewives and Medium. Another key component of her strategy to diversify, and thus distinguish, Lifetime’s offerings was to understand what it is that draws women to watch television in the first place. “Men can escape into more traditional sports and action programming,” she explained. “Women want something that informs their own journey, consciously or sub-consciously, when they escape. Society has changed so much there are no more proscribed roles for women. They can do anything they want and that means freedom, but it also means responsibility. They want validation of their own choices. They don’t want lessons, but they do want to relate to dilemmas, stories, and issues. Women refer to their lives as works in progress. They are looking for reassurance. When you lose yourself in a story, sometimes you find your own story.”
Cohen parted ways with Lifetime in April 2007 and currently serves as a branding consultant to a variety of media companies. She is the recipient of numerous awards, such as the PROMAX/BDA Pinnacle Award and the Multichannel News Global Programming Award. In 2000 she was named one of “The 50 Most Powerful Women in Business” by Fortune magazine. In May 2000, she received the Vanguard Award for Programmers from the National Cable Television Association, and in June 1999 she was cited by Advertising Age as one of the country’s Top 100 Marketers.