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Kay Koplovitz  Television Producer, Executive

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Douglas Greenstein
 
It has stereotypically been said that women are only moderately enthused about professional sports (and even less interested in science). But in 1977, Kay Koplovitz founded the Madison Square Garden Sports Network, which later became USA Network, a powerhouse of national sports and entertainment programming and the first basic cable channel to be supported through advertising. The first female president of a television network, Koplovitz ran USA Network (later USA Networks) for twenty-one years, all the while blazing new trails in both programming and business development. Since another of her accomplishments includes starting the Sci Fi Channel, it is safe to say that Koplovitz does not adhere to stereotypes. As influential as Koplovitz was in the development of the cable television industry, she has had an equally profound impact as an advocate for women in business, encouraging female entrepreneurs to seek venture capital financing and promoting women for seats on corporate boards. Her energy and vision have been instrumental in effecting change. Koplovitz points to a childhood illness that taught her valuable life lessons at an unusually early age: “I learned my own resolve was probably the most important factor in getting anything done” she told Forbes magazine. “It gave me a very positive outlook in that I could control what would happen to me.”

Growing up in Milwaukee as the daughter of a homemaker and an airplane parts salesman, Koplovitz excelled at both sports and school work and was indefatigable in pursuing goals. In kindergarten, when her family moved midyear, Koplovitz despaired at having to leave her classmates and so negotiated an increase in her allowance that allowed her to take the bus four miles back to her old school. Though a chronic lung disease kept her bedridden for long stretches of her childhood, Koplovitz never gave up on her dreams of athletic achievement. She eventually won trophies in state competitions for speed skating.

In 1966, Koplovitz was a college student headed for a career in medicine when a lecture by Arthur C. Clarke led her to change course. The astronomer and author delivered a powerful speech on a powerful subject: satellites. Koplovitz’s college minor—communications—suddenly took center stage and her focus shifted from medicine to television as she recognized the potential of satellite technology to vastly increase coverage of news, entertainment, and sports. “I was blown away to learn about the power to transmit news as it happens to a global audience,” said Koplovitz. “Not only news but sports, entertainment, just about anything people valued.”

Koplovitz’s first professional broadcast experience was as a producer-director on local radio and television in Milwaukee, but she quickly realized that other aspects of the business interested her far more. She returned to school, writing her masters thesis on satellite communications before seeking a job in the satellite industry. Koplovitz worked in public relations for Comsat before teaming with her husband, communications lawyer William Koplovitz, to sell cable systems to communities for United Artists-Columbia. At the age of 28, she started her own trade publishing firm.

Koplovitz’s graduate school research led her to believe that private use of satellites—for example, to give TV viewers access to sporting events previously restricted to live audiences—would be big business. When United Artists-Columbia asked her to launch a business based on this notion, the Madison Square Garden Sports Network was the result. Major League Baseball, the National Basketball Association, and the National Hockey League all negotiated their first cable TV contracts with Koplovitz and the MSG network. Though most new television ventures take years to realize a profit, the MSG network broke even in its first year. One of Koplovitz’s many pioneering innovations was the development of two revenue streams for cable television programmers: subscriber license fees and advertising. Though much larger than cable companies, broadcast networks depend solely on advertising dollars. Koplovitz’s strategy helped give cable the clout to become competitive.

As others moved into USA Networks’s territory, Koplovitz added other types of programming to its sports offerings. “In sports, you are subjected to the bidding process and that had become very difficult,” she said. “We did not want to become dependent on one format.” In 1986, USA Networks was the first cable company to buy the rights to network programming before it went into syndication. Before others had a chance, she nabbed the rerun rights to Miami Vice and Murder, She Wrote, both network ratings winners. In the late eighties, following cable deregulation, Koplovitz raised the rates USA charged cable operators, explaining that the money would be used to finance what was then uncharted territory for cable networks—original programming, such as made-for-television movies and series. Only one cable operator dropped USA in the wake of the rate increase, and it eventually returned to the fold. It was a gutsy decision, but something Koplovitz was never afraid to do.

In 1992, USA Networks launched the Sci Fi Channel. “Conventional wisdom said that all the viable audiences were spoken for,” wrote Koplovitz in a Wall Street Journal article. “The channel would fizzle, flop.” Instead, it kicked off with ten million subscribers, the second-largest launch in cable history. When Barry Diller bought USA Networks in 1998, Koplovitz left the company and founded Koplovitz & Co., a leading media advisory and investment firm specializing in marketing and growth strategies for early-to-late-stage companies. That same year, President Bill Clinton appointed her chair of the National Women’s Business Council. Though Koplovitz has said that gender had no impact on her working methods (“I don’t think of myself as a woman doing business. I am a competitor.”), she has worked tirelessly over her career to mentor women and open doors for those who followed her.

Through Springboard Enterprises, a nonprofit that assists female entrepreneurs, Koplovitz has encouraged women to seek financing for new businesses. In her 2002 book, Bold Women, Big Ideas: Learning to Play the High-Risk Entrepreneurial Game, Koplovitz pointed out that 95 percent of American venture capitalists are men, and they invest 95 percent of their money into businesses owned by men. At the same time, through the Directors’ Council, which she cofounded with seven other businesswomen, Koplovitz has lobbied tirelessly to encourage corporate boards to become more independent, in part by adding women and minorities to their overwhelmingly male and Caucasian ranks. Koplovitz herself has served on numerous corporate boards, including Nabisco, Oracle, Liz Claiborne, General Re, and Instinet, and nonprofits, including The Central Park Conservancy, The International Tennis Hall of Fame, and The Museum of Television & Radio.

 

 


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