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On Top of the Carriage World

Befitting a woman who spent part of her childhood in Japan and Alaska, has studied in England and began her career in Washington D.C., Bridget Baker took a circuitous route to the cable industry.

Now in her 15th
year at NBC Cable, Baker, 43, serves as senior vice president of cable distribution and has been instrumental in crafting many of its major carriage pacts.

She came to cable from the world of politics. In high school, Baker won an essay contest that earned her an internship with U.S. Senator Ted Stevens (R.-AK). After graduating from Pitzer College in Claremont, Calif. with a degree in political studies, Baker, who has also attended Exeter College at Oxford University in England and George Washington University's graduate business school, returned to work for Stevens.

After spending five years as a legislative assistant for Stevens, Baker came to a career crossroads in 1987. Her logical choices: stay with the senator, go back and work for an oil or gas company in Alaska, or become a lobbyist.

HER OWN PATH

She chose none of the above, and began investigating other industries, where she felt a woman could leave her mark. "I didn't want something that was mature like banking, retail or insurance," she said.

But Baker wasn't really thinking of a career in television, either. Her view of the medium as a child was somewhat distorted, owing to her Alaskan upbringing.

"It wasn't TV per se in southeast Alaska. We watched KTUU, what is channel 2 in Juneau today. The tapes were bicycled up from Seattle. We saw a lot of The Brady Bunch and [vampire soap opera] Dark Shadows."

She was considering satellite and telecommunications companies, though. "Remember in Alaska, everything is satellite-delivered; there are no telephone poles," she said. "I was 26, 27. I was looking at Rockwell and MCI. They met my criteria: telecommunications, and they were headquartered in D.C."

During her search period, she was also offered a position selling USA Today into hotel chains as a travel amenity. But her career path was ultimately decided by a tape a girlfriend, who was working as a buyer at a department store, received from The Fashion Channel.

"No one had heard of it," Baker recalled, but she was intrigued and eventually met one of the network founders, Charlie Gee, and tagged along on an affiliate sales call to then local operator Media General. She eventually made the plunge, taking a gig in Los Angeles. When owner Tele-Communications Inc. later decided to roll up Fashion and Cable Value Network into QVC Network Inc., Baker was tasked with winding down some of the old contracts.

She went back home to Alaska to fish and contemplate her next move. Out of the blue, she received a call from the 212 area code: It was Tom Rogers, whom she didn't know. Rogers told Baker NBC was going into the cable business — "that's where all their viewers are going."

He wanted her to work on new business development. She was reluctant, but eventually acceded, agreeing to work for 90 days at the end of 1988. She's been with the company ever since, with credits that include the charter affiliations agreements that launched CNBC the following year.

"The tipping point" for the channel came two years later in 1991, when General Electric/NBC purchased Financial News Network. Baker, who had been promoted to regional vice president, affiliate relations, worked along with current NBC Cable president David Zaslav in securing and converting the financially troubled channel's distribution, and thus boosting CNBC's subscriber base to some 34 million.

In 1993, she was promoted to vice president, affiliate relations and national accounts, and used retransmission-consent agreements to help launch MSNBC out of the former America's Talking in 1996.

Subsequently, she scored agreements that resulted in long-term cable carriage for the Olympics, replete with license-fee hikes for CNBC and MSNBC, and a surcharge for the Games.

"The Sydney and Salt Lake City Olympics were very successful for affiliates in terms of local ad sales," she said. "I'm sure Athens [the Olympics are in Greece this summer] will be too," she said.

More recently, Baker has been busy trying to augment distribution for shopping channel ShopNBC, formerly known as ValuVision, and Hispanic broadcaster Telemundo and sister cable network, mun2. "There are a number of low-power stations and must-carry issues I had never been involved with before with Telemundo," she noted.

THE LATINO MARKET

As for mun2, the former GEMS, Baker sees vast potential. "mun 2 has been on Spanish-language tiers, but the dialogue is open with operators for different positioning."

Baker and her team have also brought Bravo into 7 million more homes since the arts network was officially acquired by NBC in December 2002. Baker said the network is now available in 75 million homes, having added a combination of analog, expanded basic and digital placement over the past 12 months.

"My job has never been the same for more than 12 months," she said. "I guess that's why the 15 years have gone by so quickly and I've enjoyed it."

And more challenges no doubt lie ahead with NBC's impending acquisition of Vivendi Universal. Baker said she couldn't discuss cable assets USA Network, Sci Fi and Trio until the transaction was complete, other than to say "they are attractive properties that will really expand our portfolio."

With her parents still residing in Alaska, Baker and her family, lawyer husband Robert and children Becket, 6, and Britt, nearly 2, tries to visit twice a year, most recently over the holidays. "It was glorious weather, with the sun huge and sitting on the horizon. The days are very short; it's dark by 3:30 p.m. But you really feel like you're on top of the world," she said.