Exploring the digital and new-media landscape can be a challenge for anyone entering the field. Of course, it helps if you’re the kind of person who thrives on new pursuits.
That’s the perfect territory for Lisa Hsia, Bravo’s senior VP of new media and digital strategy. For Hsia (pronounced Shaw), a onetime documentary filmmaker and news producer, the jump to new media couldn’t have come at a better time.
“The week I started [in 2005], the iTunes store was launched, and the whole digital revolution was just getting into full swing, so it was very easy for me to start out as a new person in a new industry,” says the 50-year-old Hsia. “I happened to be in a kind of niche area of emerging media and wireless and downloadable and interactive TV. Lauren [Zalaznick, Bravo’s president] gave me the freedom to innovate and use Bravo as a Petri dish.”
Hsia first discovered her passion for media while at Harvard. Originally planning to study medicine, she took an art course to fulfill a requirement, and took to it immediately.
“I’d never experienced any kind of photography or filmmaking, and that’s what I ended up studying,” she says.
For her senior thesis, she made a documentary about a child growing up in the Hare Krishna movement; she lived on the group’s farm and learned about their culture. She was awarded a Michael Rockefeller Fellowship, given to Harvard seniors looking to explore the world and other cultures.
Hsia became one of the first students allowed to travel into China after the country began opening up. Her parents had emigrated from China but she was born in Illinois, so she tracked down distant relatives living in the country, creating a film about them, Made in China.
When the Chinese government violently suppressed pro-democracy demonstrations in Tiananmen Square, Hsia was approached by a contact at ABC News, who offered her a job on a new show, Primetime Live, to help with the network’s coverage of the incident. She eventually became a full-time producer for the program, working with Diane Sawyer.
In time, she was offered positions at other TV newsmagazines, ultimately joining Dateline NBC, where her former Primetime Live officemate, Neal Shapiro, was executive producer. Hsia went on to win six Emmy Awards. When Shapiro became president of NBC News, he named her VP of news in 2001, overseeing Today, Dateline and the network’s longform news coverage.
In addition to helping oversee coverage of the Sept. 11 attacks and the beginning of the Iraq War, Hsia also presided over the transition from Tom Brokaw to Brian Williams as anchor of NBC Nightly News, and the creation of “Democracy Plaza” for the 2004 presidential election.
In 2005, Jeff Zucker, then president of the NBC Universal Television Group, recommended Hsia to Zalaznick. “[Zucker] said, 'Have a meeting with a really smart person and tell me what you think,’” Zalaznick says. “I saw an incredibly passionate, curious mind, which struck me before anything else about Lisa.”
Zalaznick says Bravo did not have plans to start a documentary division, but she needed a leader in a new arena. “I told her, 'Here’s a wild idea; I need help innovating around this space.’ It wasn’t called digital, it wasn’t called new media, it wasn’t called anything,” Zalaznick says. “But here are the kinds of things we want to try to do.’”
Hsia was brought on as senior VP of new media, overseeing Bravo’s launch on iTunes and mobile devices, and expanding the network’s online presence. She added duties earlier this year as head of the network’s digital strategy.
Early on, the network began encouraging viewers to use their mobile devices to vote on what they think the outcome should be on Bravo’s competition shows. The response was overwhelming.
“Suddenly I realized, Wow, we’ve got this super-engaged audience,” Hsia says. “The ratings were going up, but they also seem willing to explore other platforms.”
The challenge was figuring out what would be useful in viewers’ daily lives, and building a business around it.
“I want to bottle that, listen to what they’re saying and create 'brand ambassadors,’” Hsia says. “Have them drive each other back and forth from show to show and platform to platform, and ultimately build a business around it, monetize that so that we can really build businesses outside of the core television assets.”
Currently, Hsia is spearheading the network’s “L-Bar,” set to premiere during the Bravo A List Awards in June. The L-Bar will run on-screen like a ticker on ESPN or the news networks. The scroll will feature questions and trivia, allowing users to respond in real-time on their mobile devices or online. The L-Bar (so-called because the information will be on the left and below the main image on the screen, creating an L-shape) will continue through commercials if the advertiser agrees, offering coupons and promotional numbers to call.
In her personal time, Hsia says that she loves to go hiking and exploring the outdoors with her son, but a decision to attend Columbia University Business School has been keeping her busy of late. “Currently, my life consists of getting up between 4:30 and 5:00 in the morning and studying,” Hsia says.
Still, she feels that what she is learning at Columbia will be beneficial in her position at Bravo: “I feel like a deep dive into finance, marketing, economics, it’s only going to enhance my editorial background so I can do a better job here.”
For now, though, Hsia’s passion is figuring out how to engage audiences in new ways, and expanding Bravo’s presence beyond traditional boundaries. She recognizes that engaging younger viewers is vital to any network’s success.
“I grew up in an age where you read the newspaper every morning. I defy you to find a 16-year-old who reads the newspaper anymore,” she says. “They go right online; that’s how they communicate now. And it’s my job to figure out how people of all ages are communicating, and give them a series of digital platforms on which to communicate.”
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