Tina Perry, a former corporate associate at Cravath, is Vice President, Business and Legal Affairs, for OWN: Oprah Winfrey Network. She talks about her transition into the television and media business.
Tina M. Perry
Harvard Law School,
When Tina Perry discusses the entertainment industry, one thing becomes abundantly clear: She loves her job. As she speaks, the conversation weaves effortlessly through a range of topics—from the convergence of digital and traditional media to risk assessment in the age of docu-reality to the brand-building savvy of the Kardashians.
“Work should be fun,” says Tina, Vice President, Business and Legal Affairs, for OWN: Oprah Winfrey Network, which launched in January. “Last year was an intense year for all of us leading into the launch of the network, but, through it all, I kept reminding myself and everyone I work with that this is fun work!”
Creating an entire network from the ground up has certainly been an exhilarating experience for Tina and her colleagues. In 2010, OWN produced 600 hours of original programming. At any given time, Tina oversees 35 to 40 television shows, providing business advice and legal support to every one of OWN’s departments—including development, production, programming, talent, integrated marketing, ad sales, digital, press, finance, communications, risk assessment and music licensing.
It’s the realization of a nearly lifelong dream for Tina, who at 38 is one of the network’s youngest executives. “For as long as I can remember, I’ve felt that being a part of building a business from scratch would be an ideal experience. So to have a hand in the start of a television channel led by Oprah Winfrey is truly a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity,” she says.
Tina’s Hollywood aspirations were clear to her—and others—when she graduated from Harvard Law School in 1999, which is why many people were surprised when she chose to begin her career at Cravath. One professor flatly told her she was making a mistake. “He said that LA was where the entertainment business was and it would be very hard for me to find practical experience in New York City,” says Tina.
In hindsight, his concern was understandable. During her four years at Cravath, Tina received virtually no hands-on experience in entertainment law, nor did she make any connections in that field through her work. But although Tina never learned to negotiate a guest release or license a song, she says she gained something much more valuable: the ability to solve complex problems quickly and efficiently.
“At Cravath, you’re given a lot of responsibility early in your career, with the expectation that you could do the work. You could figure it out,” she says. “You had to very quickly become a master in each rotation, so you had to learn to focus on what is important at all times.”
Tina’s experience working on high-stakes deals for the Firm also taught her how to handle complicated personalities. “I refer to them as ‘colorful personalities’. And managing them is a big part of being in the entertainment business,” she says.
Of course, stellar critical thinking and deal-making skills could only go so far. To transition into entertainment, Tina needed contacts. “The barriers to entry in my profession are very high, and I wasn’t Quincy Jones’s niece or Sidney Poitier’s nephew. I was from Oklahoma,” she says, laughing.
So Tina managed the transition the way she did her work at Cravath: She figured it out herself. She read voraciously about the industry, subscribing to Variety and The Hollywood Reporter and reading stacks of books about film and television executives. On vacations, she filled her beach bag with tomes such as the biography of Lew Wasserman, one of the most powerful men in show business, and the memoir of Julia Phillips, the first woman to win an Academy Award as a film producer. No Stephen King or Nora Roberts for her.
Sometimes she skipped the beach entirely. On one vacation, Tina attended an entertainment conference. During the (granted, rare) slow periods at the Firm, she fortified her address book, going on informational interviews with industry executives and faithfully following up with thank-you notes and holiday cards. “This industry is a relationship industry, and how you maintain relationships and stay in touch is a big part of longevity,” she says.
When her efforts landed her an interview at MTV Networks in 2003, Tina was frank about her lack of practical experience. She later learned that her enthusiasm and the breadth of her knowledge—she discussed the advent of digital media, the changing face of the music business and the life of Mae West, among other things—got her the job. “The woman who hired me said she could see I had the skills and would work hard to figure the business out—since I had already figured out so much on my own,” she says.
At MTV Networks, Tina not only had to learn the particularities of the business, but also experienced a strong cultural shift. The entertainment world, she explains, is very casual yet also requires a lot of interpersonal finesse. When dealing with a new agent, for example, Tina’s first inclination was to punch out an email detailing various business points. Her colleagues gently explained that she needed to first call the agent, introduce herself, and chat for a while about projects the agent has worked on with her client.
Such social niceties are an essential part of the business. “You will never close a good deal in a contentious, unfriendly negotiation. Part of getting a good deal is everybody working together, and liking to work with you,” she says.
At OWN, where Tina has been since 2009, that philosophy is taken even further. “Some companies have the mantra ‘We are the client, so you do what we say.’ That’s not the philosophy here—everyone I work with is a partner,” she says.
This respect is reserved not just for the businesses—the production companies, the DVD distributors—that the network contracts with, but also for the people whose lives are featured on the shows. This is extremely important, because the network tackles very sensitive, controversial issues. One show featured a program that helps prostitutes get off the street; another followed sex offenders who were unable to find housing. “These are incredibly difficult topics, and they can’t be handled casually. A lot of attention to detail and collaboration needs to happen in order to properly capture these experiences and respect the subjects who are inviting us into their lives,” she says.
As the reality genre evolves—and both audiences and on-air talent become more sophisticated—creating quality programming becomes even more challenging. In the past, she notes, the reality format primarily involved casting a group of eccentric people in a house so ultimately one could win a lot of money. “Now you have categories like docu-reality, docu-soap and competition-reality. It’s much more complex,” she says.
By contrast, she notes that producing scripted television is a relatively straightforward matter of negotiating with writers, directors and actors. “With reality television, it’s unpredictable,” she says.
And that is how she likes it. “I think I have become an adrenaline junkie, a start-up junkie,” she says. “And that’s why working at OWN has been so much fun and such a rewarding experience.”