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Women in Cable...and Control

Nickelodeon President Cyma Zarghami was harkening back to the early days of her wildly successful network, a time when, she joked, all the networks combined were making about the equivalent of a Tom Freston severance package.

There were some audible groans from the the Women in Cable Telecommunications Foundation gala crowd, but it was the only dig of an evening equal parts power and pizazz. And appropriately at the expense of a man. Zarghami was accepting the Woman of the Year Award from WICT.

Those women in cable know how to network, and to look good doing it. Both were in evidence at the Grand Hyatt hotel in Washington Wednesday night as calls to "please take your seats and enjoy the dinner" went unheeded for a good 20 minutes as women milled and maneuvered in dresses that sparkeled and shimmered and with necklines that often plunged with the abandon of cliff divers in Acapulco.

The crowd Wednesday night was full of empowering buzz as WICT powered through a lineup of honorees, stoked by lobster and petit filets served at tables lit by floating candles above submerged roses. The image of burning and blossoming spoke to the ambition and the overt sexiness that seemed to cohabitate in relative comfort. 

Oxygen President Lisa Gersh, who was pitching WICT's "Tech It Out" initiative to get more women interested in the cable tech field, got the crowd going with her observation that a study had found that a majority of women would prefer a plasma screen TV to a diamond necklace. The reaction was immediate incredulity, a sound unmistakable,though tough to reproduce. "Most of them aren't here," she quickly added.

Linda Ellerbee, who has cornered the market on gutsy and classy, was the evening's emcee. "Hello my sisters and righteous brothers," she said.

Ellerbee who has battled breast cancer, said she was glad to have come to a place in her life where she cared enough not to care so much about the things she used to care about. "You can lose your breast and your hair," she said–adding that "the hair grows back"– without losing "your mind or you passion for life."

Robin Sangston, legal eagle for Cox, was tabbed the "woman to watch," and filled the bill in a deep-cut red dress that would have had the directors at a broadcast awards show screaming for a tight, shoulders-up shot. It was certainly cause for comment from the cable women at my table.

But it was that power/pizazz equation again, with Sangston saying that she hoped that when her nine-year-old daughter, Amanda (who was in attendance), was in the workforce, there would be no need for a WICT, but that she was too much of a realist, or perhaps a cynic, to bank on it. She said that at the current pace, it could take 40 years before there was pay equity between the sexes. Amanda would be 49, she said. "That's not good enough."

Cox President Patrick Esser, there to accept Cox's award for Best Operator for Women in Cable, said later he had been watching Sangston, adding: "I'm very, very proud."

Editor's Interruption: A video plugging the Betsy Magness Leadership Institute talked about it being a venue for "acquiring a comprehensive skill set." Do they mean "learning." If so, I wish they would just say so. Mark Twain would have a colorful and folksy way of putting that phrase down, but I'm too tired to Google him and steal something.

OK, back to business. Betty Cohen, inducted last month into the (shameless plug) B&C Hall of Fame, was there to accept an accolade–everybody got an "accolade" except Zarghami,who got her own "yaer"–for a Lifetime movie on human trafficking.

Millions of people are trafficked annually, with 80% women and girls. She said that Lifetime had not expected to be able to make much of a dent in the problem. She likened it to the story of a little girl who watches starfish being washed up onto the sand. She picks up one and throws it back hoping to save it. Her mother, looking at a sea of stranded starfish, says that won't make much of a difference. "It will to the one I threw back, "the girl replies.

That's what Lifetime was aiming for, said Cohen, but got more than it bargained for. Congress passed two laws last January cracking down on human trafficking and she said the State Department and Homeland Security use the film to help educated embassy staffs about the problem.

Collecting his operator prize, Esser pointed out the company had just topped the J.D Power & Associates list "across the board" and that there was a connection between diversity and success. A more diverse workforce made for happier people, which made for more productive people and a more successful company, he said.

He also said that companies needed to provide an environment that recognized the value of a balanced work and home life, saying the next generation will not only expect a flexible and accommodating workplace, but will require it.

Zarghami's videotape intro included colleagues brimming with praise, which is standard, but also featured an unusual superlative: Not only had she changed the programming landscape, but she was "not afraid of a good fart joke."

One colleague when asked to identify what "secret sauce" Zarghami might have to account for her success, suggested somewhat curiously. "I think it might be something she squeezes out of Spongebob." Not an image I am filing in the memory banks, thank you.

Zarghami hailed Ellerbee, who has produced kids news for Nickelodeon for the past 15 years, saying Nick News was the only place where major events like 9/11 or the war in Iraq were tranlated to the language of children.

Ellerbee countered that when she moved to Nick News she had been covering politics for NBC News, " and now I am covering it for 10 year olds and it's better," she said. "They're smarter."

By John Eggerton