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'Tough But Fair': Gaiski: Comcast Gatekeeper

In 1996, Jennifer Gaiski was a rookie affiliate sales rep for the soon-to-be-launched Fox News Channel. she was based in New York City — but spent so little time there that she didn't even have her own place. Gaiski crashed on her friend's futon.

“We were told that if we were in the office, we weren't doing our jobs,” she said, recalling her days canvassing the 14 Southeastern states in her territory. “I had the hotel circuit down pat.”

Needless to say, programming deals have changed dramatically since then, when getting Fox News on cable meant one thing: the linear analog channel. Today, negotiations are labyrinthine, involving rights for high-definition, video-on-demand, Internet and mobile platforms.

And the shoe's on the other foot for Gaiski, who is now one of the most powerful gatekeepers in the cable business as senior vice president of content acquisition at Comcast.

“If Jen Gaiski and Matt Bond [executive vice president of content acquisition] don't think it's going to happen, it's not going to happen at Comcast,” said Sandy Wax, president of PBS Kids Sprout.

Gaiski, 37, joined Comcast in 1997 as programming manager — an opening she discovered after reading the classified ads in Multichannel News.

In 2007, she was promoted to her current position overseeing the No. 1 operator's content-acquisition budget, estimated to be about $7 billion this year. Gaiski not only negotiates and administers programming contracts, she also coordinates field operations and communications within Comcast to implement those deals.

In that role, she exhibits a passion for the business, as well as tremendous organization and diligence to the deal-making process, said Justin Connolly, senior vice president of national accounts at Disney/ESPN.

“She deals with all the Comcast systems, and she knows each of them and has contacts with each of them,” he said. “That's incredibly valuable in terms of figuring out what can and can't be done.”

Gaiski oversees some 400 contracts, spanning 1,100 headends with more than 2,000 different channel lineups. How do she and her team keep track of that huge matrix? “We have a great database,” she said with a laugh.

As an undergraduate at Penn State University, Gaiski majored in marketing and minored in business logistics. She later earned an MBA from Drexel University.

In working with programmers, Gaiski listens to advice and seeks input from a variety of sources, said Jennifer Dangar, senior vice president of domestic distribution for Discovery Communications, who has known Gaiski for about 10 years.

“She's very solutions oriented, very conscientious — you can call her and expect a very straightforward answer,” she said.

While Gaiski is one of the top decision-makers affecting the programming that reaches Comcast's more than 24 million video subscribers, she works collaboratively to strike deals that help content partners succeed, Wax said. “Obviously she controls a lot of important distribution, but she doesn't carry that around like a big stick,” she said.

Added Connolly, as a negotiator, “ 'tough but fair' absolutely jumps out as the bumper sticker for her.”

Gaiski thinks of herself as a middleman — well, “middlewoman” — between the programmers and Comcast's divisions.

“The deal is only the beginning of a really long relationship,” she said. “You want that to be positive and well balanced, because at some point you'll be back at the table.”

The toughest parts of her job are finding the bandwidth to add more services and navigating the complex deals that extend across multiple platforms. Gaiski noted that every single deal Comcast strikes now must include rights to carry the linear TV feed (securely) to subscribers over the Internet.

“At Fox News, it was just a matter of getting a meeting,” Gaiski said. “Now it's about getting the bandwidth, getting the right price, the VOD, the extras you put into the contract.”

She loves her job, but dealing with cable programming distribution is not necessarily as glitzy-glamorous as some presume. “Some people think I go and stand on the set of The Sopranos,” Gaiski said.

So what are her own favorite TV shows or networks? ESPN is on in her household a fair amount and, as an avid gardener, she's a fan of HGTV. Gaiski, who has a 2-year-old daughter, also watches a lot of Sprout shows. (A mixed blessing, Wax joked: “With certain advertisers on Sprout she'll call me up and say: 'What's going on? Why are you running this ad?' ”)

Her husband Chris is also a Comcast employee — he's head of finance and operations for the company's customer-service group.

As a relatively new mom, Gaiski said her answer for work-life balance is “a fantastic husband and late-night e-mail.”

“People ask me, 'Do you sleep?' They get e-mails from me in the middle of the night,” she said.

“One of the things about Jen I admire is, she always returns my call,” said Genia Edelman, senior vice president of national distribution for Gospel Music Channel. “And that's not always the case in this business.”

For Gaiski, that's essential. “One of my biggest things is calling people back,” she said. “It's a huge relationship builder.”