Meredith Wagner, executive vice president of public affairs and corporate communications at Lifetime Television, stumbled across an amusing piece of her past recently: a chiding memo penned by one of her college professors.
The 46-year-old executive was an English major at the then all-female Skidmore College in Saratoga Springs, N.Y. In one of her journalism classes, she wrote opinion pieces on issues of the day, such as whether Barbara Walters deserved a much-discussed $1 million contract. Her professor sent her a memo stating she needed to focus on something besides women's issues.
Fortunately for Lifetime and the cable industry, that piece of academic advice went unheeded. Today, Wagner spends most of her time on the women's targeted network's award-winning advocacy programs, tackling such issues as improvements in women's health care, criminalizing video voyeurism and cutting the backlog of DNA sampling to take rapists off the streets.
She's obviously found her place. Wagner laughingly describes many of her past jobs outside the media as disasters. One such gig was on an assembly line, pasting greeting cards into sales brochures. She hated it and sobbed in the car as her father drove her to work.
“He told me, 'This is a character-building exercise. If anyone needs character building, it's you,' ” she says. “It's made every other job look great.”
She also claims to have been the worst chambermaid on Cape Cod. She'd look at a mussed bed and think, “Those sheets don't look too bad.”
“I don't stay in small inns to this day,” she adds.
But she began to find herself after college, when she lined up a job interview at the ABC Television Network in New York. Unfortunately, it was as a secretary and she had consciously decided not learn to type in order to avoid being pigeonholed in the steno pool. The interviewer gave her a few months to improve on what Wagner described as her one-word-a-minute speed, and she poured herself into training. When she returned a few months later, she still typed a word a minute, but something impressed the interviewer and he hired her as a secretary for ABC News.
Her Mary Richards-like fantasy didn't even last until she was off the Port Authority Bus Terminal escalator. She saw a man resembling her grandfather as she entered this new phase of her life and viewed that as a positive omen — until he turned and offered her a vulgar sexual invitation. “Welcome to New York!” she said.
Wagner entered the news business at a propitious time: In 1980-81, the Democratic National Convention was held in New York, renominating Jimmy Carter; the hostages were released from the U.S. Embassy in Iran; John Lennon was shot in front of his apartment at the Dakota; and an assassination attempt was made on President Reagan. “It was a thrilling news year,” she says — a period in which Wagner was exposed to the rigors of covering breaking news. The events served as an accelerated course in that practice, as opposed to what would have been a more circuitous learning curve during a slower cycle. A year later, she moved to CBS, where she worked for five years before finding her long-term home: Lifetime.
In 1987, the network was only three years old and hadn't quite found its identity. It wasn't “overtly” women-targeted for fear of scaring off the men in its 18 million household universe. “We were so short-staffed, we had nothing to lose. It was thrilling, a whole new territory,” she says.
As public-affairs manager, Wagner took the opportunity to talk more to the female viewing base. One of her earliest advocacy efforts was linked to a documentary that discussed women and AIDS. Lifetime partnered with cable operators and local women's health centers to expand the discussion.
Wagner cites the direction provided by mentors, including Tom Burchill (Lifetime president and CEO, 1984-1993); Bonnie Hammer (a former Lifetime colleague who's now president of USA Network and Sci Fi Channel); and outgoing president Carole Black as invaluable to her career climb. Burchill provided Wagner with a lot of opportunity, she says, while Black is “someone who pushes you to do things you didn't think you could do.” Hammer has offered unyielding support and trustworthy judgment, Wagner notes.
Their encouragement has helped spur Wagner on to expand the network's advocacy initiatives, including its heralded fight against breast cancer.
The network has also scored some legislative victories, such as the recent passage of a federal bill providing funding to process the DNA-testing backlog. The initiative was inspired by the case of Debbie Smith, a woman who was raped in her own home and for seven years lived in fear that her attacker would come back to kill her because she'd gone to the police for evidence collection. That's how long it took a federal evidence lab to get around to her sample. Smith eventually discovered she'd been unnecessarily afraid: Her attacker had been jailed six months after his rape of Smith, on another charge.
Wagner is enthusiastic about the new policy's potential to take sexual predators off the streets. The impact really hit Wagner the day after the bill passed, when Smith came to Lifetime's offices to thank officials for their support.
“I just burst into tears,” she says, citing the campaign as her proudest accomplishment at Lifetime. That, and her longevity.
“I'm the Doris Kearns Goodwin of Lifetime,” she jokes, a reference to the prominent historian and fellow baseball fan. Like Goodwin, Wagner is among the Red Sox faithful still reveling in Boston's 2004 World Series triumph.
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