When Pearlena Igbokwe was a sophomore in college, she landed a job as a summer associate with NBC. “It was my first taste of the entertainment business, and I was hooked,” she said.
Thirty-five years later, and Igbokwe now sits atop NBCU’s Universal Studio Group empire — which comprises Universal Television, Universal Content Productions, Universal Television Alternative Studios and Universal International Studios — leading a team of more than 450 people and a content roster that spans more than 30 platforms.
It’s a full circle whose significance is not lost on the Lagos, Nigeria-born executive, the first woman of African descent to lead a U.S. television studio, who spent much of her childhood glued to the small screen when she didn’t have her head in a book studying. “I’m Nigerian,” she said. “It’s a culture of achievement.’ ”
Igbokwe’s career hit the fast lane at Showtime, where she helped launch shows including Linc’s, Soul Food and flagship drama Dexter. After 20 years there, in 2012 she headed to NBC, where she reunited with her Showtime boss Bob Greenblatt. As executive VP of drama programming, she guided a string of hits including The Blacklist that elevated the network from fourth to first place. She rose to president of Universal Television in 2016, and took the helm of USG in September 2020.
“If someone walked into my office tomorrow and told me, ‘Sorry, it’s over, you’re out,’ I would not have one regret,” she said. That scenario, of course, is highly unlikely. Igbokwe is heralded as an executive who leads with business acumen, vision and humanity.
“Pearlena is a unique leader; she is an outstanding manager as well as a creative inspiration,” said Jeff Shell, NBCU’s CEO, to whom Igbokwe reports. “She has an amazing ability to find compelling stories, nurture new voices and create award-winning TV shows.”
Universal Studio Group’s portfolio includes Dick Wolf’s entire NBC roster, Netflix’s The Umbrella Academy, HBO Max’s Hacks and Apple TV Plus’s Little America. The Kate McKinnon-starring Joe vs. Carole debuted on Peacock in early March; Hulu’s Elle Fanning true crime series The Girl From Plainville is up next.
“Pearlena is the best partner I’ve had in my 30-plus years at Universal,” Wolf said. “She has impeccable taste and we work together seamlessly.”
Tina Fey, whose production company Little Stranger is based at Universal Television and is behind hits including Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt and Girls5eva, said Igbokwe offers a unique perspective for a studio chief. “Pearlena’s very smart,” she said. “She cares about story and quality. Also, she gets the jokes. It’s so much easier to make comedy for people who get the jokes.
“Pearlena is also great at staying calm during chaotic times,” Fey added. “And I think she has a deep sense of fairness.”
Igbokwe’s penchant for keeping calm was handy when the pandemic altered the trajectory of the content business.
“When the lockdown started, we were selling to everyone, and now in two short years it’s all become about streaming,” she said. “What I think about now is how quickly the environment can change, and how we constantly have to think ahead because some of the rights and deals we might not have anticipated are important now. … It’s an interesting tug of war between studio and the streamers now around who’s owning rights.”
Telling Hopeful Stories
What hasn’t changed is her knack for bringing forth a good story. She waxes philosophical about the kind of content she’s most excited to deliver these days.
“Maybe it’s corny, but we as a species don’t have a reason to get up in the morning if we don’t believe something good’s going to happen,” she said. “I want to make all kinds of stories, but if we can lean toward those things that bring more hope into the world, I think we’re better off.”
Igbokwe has always been generous in sharing her time and knowledge, especially with young people. Lately, she’s grown more comfortable stepping into the spotlight.
“I remember looking around to see ‘are there other people that looked like me in the entertainment business?’ And there weren’t a lot,” she said. “So I’m realizing it’s important to be visible, that me having visibility means other people who never thought they could be in this business and rise to the level I have now know it’s possible.
“I have to leave some kind of legacy that’s different from if someone else had this job. Otherwise, that would make me having this job pointless. And I never want it to be pointless.” ■
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Cathy Applefeld Olson is a seasoned entertainment, media and culture journalist, and producer of video content and events. Through her continuing coverage in publications including Forbes, Billboard, XLive, Cynopsis, Broadcasting+Cable and Multichannel News, Cathy reports on evolving industry trends and personalities in business, branding, talent and technology. A passionate believer in the power of culture influencers to elevate well-being, Cathy recently launched the Forbes column Hollywood & Mind, which features interviews with entertainers, sports figures, executives and others who are boosting the conversation around mental health. She also works with music and wellness community Myndstream, for which she writes the monthly State of Mynd blog.