Women of Tech 2016 | Sherry Brennan: Fox’s Technology Bridge

Sherry Brennan is the first to tell you about how many women at Fox Networks are “far more technical” than she is. But as Multichannel News’s choice for Woman of Tech in the Programmer category, it’s her rare and appreciable blend of industrial memory and technology communication that sets her apart

It’s perhaps not surprising that she counts the venerable and notoriously straight-to-the-point Wilt Hildenbrand (former CTO of Cablevision Systems) as the teacher who showed her how to navigate the seas of tech-talk. Along a 27-year (and counting) career, Brennan invented a way to automate royalty fees using then-new database techniques; helped launch Cablevision’s video-on-demand service; and today, negotiates beyond the “known” waters of linear licensing on deals far more technical in reach and in scope. As a frequent speaker at industry events, Brennan is consistently direct, clever, and accurate — whether the topic is headend IRD authorization, proposed FCC set top box rules, advanced advertising or the over-the-top video scene. She spoke with MCN technology correspondent Leslie Ellis.

More WoT: Brennan is one of five execs selected for MCN's 2016 Women of Tech list; read about the others in Setting the Pace for Innovation [subscription required] and watch for a daily profile of each Sept. 26-30at multichannel.com/WomenOfTech.

MCN: What did you want to be when you grew up?

Sherry Brennan: The first female president of the United States, a surgeon, a physicist and a writer. We didn’t have a TV, so I had no idea about careers in television until after grad school.

MCN: First job? First job in cable?

SB: My very first job was collecting tickets and turning on and off the “kiddie rides” at my grandparents’ amusement park in Iowa City. I was 10. The liability issues make me shudder, looking back on it now … but nothing bad happened on my watch!

First job in cable was with Falcon Cable TV in 1989, working for the COO, Frank Intiso. I went from budget data entry to creating their first licensee-fee payment and channel-lineup databases. Somewhere in there, I helped figure out how to restructure our tiering so we didn’t take a financial hit with the Cable Act regulations in ’92 and ’93.

Frank set me up with a private tutor to learn how to write macros in so I could try running various scenarios, and ultimately automate how the required forms were populated. We had nearly 1,000 different systems in about 40 states, and each scenario used half a box of continuous-roll paper — sometimes I’d come in at 8 a.m. to find it unspooled and out the printer room door (yes, we had whole rooms for printing back then). I dreamed in numbers and rate change structures for months!

MCN: What’s on top of your to-do list these days?

SB: The opportunities for taking our content, and new forms of our content, to a variety of traditional and emerging platforms. It’s so interesting to see how different companies view the business — from small startups to huge companies, there are dozens of people wanting to get into our business. When I hear people say “TV is dead,” I just laugh. Who knew a “dead” business could generate so much activity? The deals are challenging and circuitous, and I can’t wait to see how incumbents and new entrants change our business over the next few years.

MCN: When and where are you happiest?

SB: When my son is happy, and also when I’m outdoors. Cooking and eating with family and friends is high on the list, too.

MCN: Most important quality for women to possess?

SB: Confidence married to competence, as my friend Grace Killelea would say it (in her fabulous book, The Confidence Effect). You’ve simply got to be able to speak up, in a cheerfully confident — and accurate — way, or you’ll be relegated to the back row forever.

MCN: What technology word drives you batty?

SB: “Skinny bundles.” Don’t people realize that “broadcast basic” is the original “skinny bundle,” and it’s been around forever?

MCN: What do you like to do when you’re not at work?

SB: Spend time with my son, read, and take long walks by the ocean. I also like cooking “homey” foods — lasagna, soup, chicken cutlets — while watching PBS mysteries on my DVR. And baking pies: Apple pie, pear-cranberry tarte tatin, chicken pot pie with whole wheat crust … yes, you’re invited!

MCN: Best or worst advice you’ve ever received?

SB: My dad told me that if I worked hard, I could achieve anything. He encouraged me to be smart, to strive for my goals, and to go to college, which he hadn’t had the opportunity to do. Without that formative vote of confidence, I’m not sure any other advice would’ve mattered. Thanks, Dad!

MCN: Favorite book of all time?

SB:Dr. Zhivago Drove the Bus to Chicago because it’s the book I learned to read with — all in one very long day (for my mom). I was 4 years old, determined, and on my own timeframe. Foreshadowing my entire adult life!

MCN: Favorite gadget or app?

SB: Instacart. No more “bad mommy” moments, when I get home late and realize there’s no milk, no toilet paper, and nothing to put in my son’s lunch for the next day. Yes, I’ve been known to order milk and bread for delivery at 9 p.m.