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Dana Walden is obsessed with TV

Walden, chairman of 20th Century Fox Television, oversees one of Hollywood's most prolific production companies.

October 02, 2011|By Joe Flint, Los Angeles Times
  • Dana Walden, chairman of 20th Century Fox Television, at her home in Brentwood. A Los Angeles native, Walden says she was obsessed with television from an early age.
Dana Walden, chairman of 20th Century Fox Television, at her home in Brentwood.… (Mel Melcon, Los Angeles…)

The gig: As chairman of News Corp.'s 20th Century Fox Television, Dana Walden, 46, oversees one of the most prolific production companies in town. The studio makes 33 shows, including the hits "Glee," "Modern Family" and "How I Met Your Mother." Walden shares her title with Gary Newman. The two have run the TV operation for 12 years, and their partnership has outlasted many actual Hollywood marriages.

Early riser: A Los Angeles native, Walden was obsessed with television from an early age. "On Saturdays, I would wake up at 5 o'clock in the morning to start watching cartoons. I still remember my mother coming into the family room telling me to please turn down 'Speed Racer.' I wasn't very discriminating."

No stage mom: Although Walden's mom was a professional dancer and her dad, a Friars Club member who worked in the travel industry, counted several stars including the late Milton Berle and Tom Bosley as friends, Walden said she got no breaks. "I used to do an after-school theater program and my mother used to put on the shows, and it would always make me incredibly mad that my mother didn't want to seem like she was showing favoritism. I would never be the lead, I was sort of off to the side."

Wild horses: When she hit her teens, Walden became obsessed with horses and used to ride show hunters competitively. She even persuaded her parents to buy her a horse that she kept in a stable in Burbank. She rode all the way through college but hopped off the saddle when she graduated from USC. "It was my passion, I didn't want to make it my job."

Advice to forget: In her senior year of college in 1986, Walden got her first taste of how many still perceived women in the entertainment industry. Her father set up a meeting for her with a top agent, who asked Walden how well she could type. When she said not so well, the agent replied, "What's a pretty girl like you doing not knowing how to type?" Walden quietly seethed and decided, "One day you're going to regret saying that… Girls don't need to learn how to type any more than a guy needs to learn how to type."

Learning curve: Armed with a communications degree, Walden went into public relations after graduating, starting as an assistant to Larry Goldman, a partner in the firm Bender, Goldman & Helper. "I always say that I quit one less time than Larry fired me," she said.

First big break: After five years at the public relations firm, where she rose to vice president, Walden caught the eye of comedian Arsenio Hall, who at the time hosted a red-hot late-night talk show and tapped her to handle his marketing and communications. While there, she met Lucy Salhany, who was running Paramount Domestic Television and was considered the most powerful woman television executive. "To see a woman being the boss was inspirational," Walden said. After Salhany went to Fox and recruited Walden to join her, she spent several years handling public relations for 20th Century Fox Television. "I got an education that most executives who come up the creative path don't get," Walden said.

From PR to programming: At a Fox corporate retreat in the mid-1990s, Walden made a Jerry Maguire-like presentation about what she thought the perception of the studio was. She told the brass that "we were not producing enough shows" and that Fox was "losing a lot of the deals we were going after" to rival studios. Peter Chernin, who was the big boss overseeing the studio at that time, immediately moved Walden out of public relations and made her a programming executive.

Snake pit: Walden learned early on that not everyone was going to embrace her move to programming. "I shared a suite with an executive who would routinely tell agents I was clueless and asked them not to deal with me." Once she gained the trust of key creators including Chris Carter ("The X-Files"), Walden began to climb to the top.

Working with others: Walden was paired with Gary Newman to run the studio in 1999. At the time, he was seen as the business expert and she the creative force. Walden says there are "no hard and fast rules" to their partnership. "Whoever gets to an email first can make a decision that the other will support." On the rare occasions in which the two are in complete disagreement, whoever has the most passion wins.

Advice to wanna-be Hollywood players: "Do not call me," Walden cracked before warning that "the ones who are pursuing it because it seems like a dynamic career path end up hitting a wall at a certain level."

Personal: Walden lives in Brentwood with her husband and two daughters. She's given up horses but is on the board of the Los Angeles Zoo and supports a Chance for Bliss, a nonprofit that rescues elderly animals.

joe.flint@latimes.com

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