Quite a Student: Showtime’s Igbokwe Mastered Medium That Taught Her

Pearlena Igbokwe
Senior Vice President, Original Programming

For most people television serves as a source of entertainment and an escape from the rigors of daily life. But for Showtime senior vice president of original programming Pearlena Igbokwe, It served as a companion and teacher.

As a child, the Lagos, Nigeria, native virtually learned English from watching 1950s sitcoms and black-and-white movies.

As an adult, Igbokwe parlayed her love for television into a successful programming career — overseeing such big Showtime original series hits as Dexter, Nurse Jackie and Soul Food.

Igbokwe was not exposed to television until her mom and brother emigrated to Montclair, N.J., in 1971, when she was six years old, reuniting with her father, who had traveled to the States a few years earlier.

For a young girl trying to adapt to a new culture and a new language, Looney Tunes cartoons, I Love Lucy episodes and classic movies provided an introduction to American culture and were her first English teacher.

“When I came to America from Nigeria, television was my best friend,” she said. “I would sit there for hours on end but I just loved all kinds of television. That’s how I learned the language — it was a great educator.”

Despite her early love of television, Igbokwe as a young woman never envisioned a career in the business. She didn’t contemplate the idea until a summer internship with NBC in 1985, while a sophomore at Yale University.

“I worked at NBC during the network’s heyday when they had The Cosby Show,” she said. “I couldn’t believe that I was getting paid to work in the business that I love. That’s when it struck me that I could actually find a way to work in this business.”

When it came time to get a job after college, Igbokwe landed in the financial-services industry, working for Prudential in 1987 before attending business school at Columbia University as a marketing major in 1990.

After a short stint at HBO, Igbokwe landed at Showtime in 1994 in the direct marketing department, working alongside then-marketing director and current Epix CEO Mark Greenberg.

“Right out of business school when I recruited her, there was a real sense that Pearlena had tremendous talent,” Greenberg said. “She has proven to be a very smart and strategic person who has made a real and meaningful impact on the industry.”

She ascended quickly and in 1996 became the director of special projects under Showtime’s then chairman and CEO, Winston H. “Tony” Cox. Igbokwe worked closely with the CEO and senior staff members to develop, analyze and manage Showtime projects related to corporate development, programming, public policy, public affairs and marketing.

Igbokwe remained in the position after current network chairman Matt Blank took over following Cox’s death in 1996. With Blank’s interest more focused on the programming end of the business, Igbokwe began working more closely with Showtime’s content-development team. It was then she realized her calling was in the development of original programming.

“I said to Matt that I was interested in programming and I have to thank him for not initially laughing in my face, because I really hadn’t developed anything up to that point,” Igbokwe reminisced. “You can’t [overstate] the value of mentors who support what it is you’re trying to do.”

Igbokwe would trade the suburban life of Montclair, N.J., for the bright lights of Hollywood to serve as Showtime’s director of original programming — the first person to transition from one coast to another within the Showtime ranks.

Her first big solo project was the Tim Reid dramedy Linc’s, which was a moderate success for the network. It wasn’t until the 2000 debut of Soul Food that Igbokwe had her first big hit. The NAACP Image Award-winning series about a multi-generational African-American family lasted four seasons and helped fortify Showtime’s original programming brand.

“It really connected with audiences — it was real and it became one of the most active online communities on the Showtime Web site.”

If Soul Food put Igbokwe on the map, Dexter catapulted her to stardom. The dark drama about a vigilante Miami cop has become the most successful original series in Showtime history. The Dec. 13 season 4 finale of the multiple Emmy-nominated series drew a network record 2.5 million viewers.

“For some people it’s all about a serial killer, but it has a lot to say about the human condition and the nature of good and evil,” she said.

Igbokwe also supervises several other big hits for the network, including Nurse Jackie, staring former The Sopranos star Edie Falco; Tracey Ullman’s State of the Union; and the upcoming series LA LA Land.

Igbokwe’s talents aren’t limited to scripted series. She’s overseen a number of Showtime original movies, including Jasper, Texas; the Emmy-nominated Bojangles; and the Peabody Award-winning Strange Justice.

Despite her success, Igbokwe said she has set even bigger goals for herself: She would like to head up a cable network eventually.

For now, the married mother of two kids said she’s happy working at Showtime developing quality programming that reaches people.

“It’s great knowing that we can do things that we really want to do,” she said. “It may not be the highest-rated thing that we do, but there’s some merit to why we do the show, and that’s important.”

R. Thomas Umstead

R. Thomas Umstead serves as senior content producer, programming for Multichannel News, Broadcasting + Cable and Next TV. During his more than 30-year career as a print and online journalist, Umstead has written articles on a variety of subjects ranging from TV technology, marketing and sports production to content distribution and development. He has provided expert commentary on television issues and trends for such TV, print, radio and streaming outlets as Fox News, CNBC, the Today show, USA Today, The New York Times and National Public Radio. Umstead has also filmed, produced and edited more than 100 original video interviews, profiles and news reports featuring key cable television executives as well as entertainers and celebrity personalities.