As a network president I have heard, and as a parent I understand, the concerns being expressed by the American public and by this subcommittee that television content can at times be inappropriate for children, particularly during live events that are widely viewed as “family friendly.” At the same time, I think we all recognize that the First Amendment requires us as a society to tread lightly when it comes to translating concerns about television content into government regulation.
These were the words spoken by Gail Berman, then Fox Entertainment president, on February 26, 2004, addressing the Subcommittee on Telecommunications and the Internet, charged with investigating the firestorm that followed the revealing of Janet Jackson’s breast during a live NFL Super Bowl half-time show. An exception in the entertainment industry, which is dominated by brash individuals in their twenties and thirties, Berman is a thoughtful fortyish mother of twins, best known for her work on Broadway and for bringing positive portrayals of women to television. She is also an entertainment executive renowned for bringing stability to desperately unstable situations.
Berman was born in 1957 in Brooklyn to a family that moved to Bellmore, New York, when she was nine months old. The family’s next-door neighbor was Mack Robbins, a stand-up comic from the Catskills. Berman frequently visited the Robbins home, where she met performers such as Totie Fields. When she was fifteen, the Berman family moved again, this time to Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, where her father, who worked in the insurance industry, had been transferred. She refused to make friends in the new city, returning to Long Island each weekend to visit friends.
Berman graduated from Philadelphia’s Abington High School in 1974. Encouraged by her parents to study acting, she attended the theater program at the University of Maryland, where she earned a bachelor of art’s degree in 1978. However, Berman’s dream of taking the New York acting world by storm quickly became a nightmare when she realized that there were many others who shared the same goal. She found herself working in her uncle’s stereo store. In 1979, she married comedian Bill Masters, a fellow University of Maryland theater graduate, in Woodmere, New York. Berman once told The New York Times that they married there because her father knew the caterer. Berman gave birth to fraternal twins in 1993. While she wears her motherhood on her sleeve, Berman remains tight-lipped about family details when speaking to the press.
In 1979 her college friend, Susan Rose, interested her in the musical Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat. Even though neither of them had any formal training as producers, they decided to bring the show to Washington D.C.’s Ford’s Theater. They were able to convince Robert Stigwood to sell them the rights to Joseph and raised $150,000, with the help of Berman’s uncle and a multimedia presentation that they took to potential investors. The successful Off Broadway production was eventually moved to Broadway in January 1982. At the time, Berman and Rose were the youngest producers in Broadway history. The production, which ran for two and a half years, earned seven Tony nominations by the time Berman was twenty-three years old. The pair went on to produce Almost an Eagle (1982), Hurlyburly (1984) and Blood Knot (1985); the latter two were Tony nominees.
By the end of the 1980s Berman had moved to television, taking a job supervising production of HBO’s Comedy Channel, an early version of Comedy Central. In 1990 Berman went to Hollywood and became a producer for Sandollar, where she earned a reputation for creating television shows with strong female characters. She went on to become the company’s president and chief executive producer, responsible for such hits as the television adaptation of Joss Whedon’s flop feature film Buffy the Vampire Slayer and its spin-off series Angel, as well as Roswell. In 1998 Berman joined with Arnon Milchan and News Corp. to found and later become head of Recent Television, which backed creation of Linwood Boomer’s hit sitcom Malcolm in the Middle.
In 2000 she took over as president of the troubled Fox Entertainment, which had suffered from frequent changes among its executives. Despite the job’s high turnover (six presidents in eight years), Berman signed on for four years. “Stability is a very important component of coming out of a tailspin,” she told New York’s Newsday. The executives under Berman were schooled at Fox and promoted from within; one of the exceptions, Marcy Ross, was an assistant to Berman on Broadway. Berman helped turn the network’s ratings around with such reality shows as Joe Millionaire and American Idol and the Jewish-themed prime-time soap opera, The O.C. In 2005 Berman announced that she was signing on as president of Paramount Pictures.
While Berman is highly outspoken, she seems to have found balance in the form of a quiet life in Pacific Palisades with her family. “It puts everything in life in perspective. It reminds you that the highs [at work] are great, but they’re not the highest achievements in life; the lows are sad, but they’re not the lowest,” she told the Hollywood Reporter.
Klein, Alvin. “At 26, Producing ‘Joseph’ on Broadway.” The New York Times. October 3, 1982; Mehlmen, Peter. “Anything for Laughs.” The Washington Post Magazine, January 25, 1987; Weintraub, Bernard. “Far From Broadway.” Chicago Tribune. August 28, 2000; Idem “Theater or TV, It’s Just That She Cares.” The New York Times, July 24, 2000; Werts, Diane. “Tuning in to Teens.” Newsday. January 18, 1998; Idem. “Digging Fox Out of Its Hole.” Newsday. August 15, 2000; “Fox Broadcasting.” Hollywood Reporter, December 2, 2003; “Gail Berman.” Biography Resource Center. Gale Group: 2003.