Dialogue: Former Verizon exec builds up network's brand

Former Verizon executive Lisa Sherman had no television experience when MTV president of programming Brian Graden hired her to help him start LGBT-friendly cable net in 2005. But the station’s exec VP and general manager has proven to be a quick study, and Logo, which began as a small digital network, is now available in more than 50 million homes. Logo recently scored its highest-rated quarter in history, with a 20% rise in ratings (May 2011-12), and its “RuPaul’s Drag Race” finale was seen by a record 1 million viewers in late April.

Sherman discusses the early days and the evolution of the network — and indeed the nation around it — with Randee Dawn, explaining how she plans to grow her audience while hewing close to Logo’s mission statement: “Gay will always be in our DNA.”

RD: You were a TV newcomer before Logo. What advice did Brian give you?

LS: To listen to your gut. Listen to pitches as a consumer. And that works — it’s why MTV Networks and Viacom are so focused on audience.

RD: You came out in your professional life about 20 years ago. Ever had any regrets?

LS: I have zero regrets. Of course, when you look back in the rearview mirror, you wish you’d done it sooner, but I clearly wasn’t ready. Coming out is a process and everyone has to do it in their own time and place. I didn’t quite understand how much energy it took to hide who I was.

RD: Is it necessary to have someone who is gay running a gay network?

LS: At the time we were launching in 2005, since it had never been done before, for a number of reasons it made sense to have someone who was gay and understood the audience and knew the community. Today, it’s probably not a requirement at all, especially given where our culture has gone.

RD: What initial concerns did you have in building the Logo brand?

LS: It was the last of the underserved audiences, and I always felt we had a great business case for it, but we had to educate our affiliate partners on that audience. It was more like a process to get them excited about what we were building.

RD: There’s a swathe of the country that is not just unsupportive of gay rights, but actively opposes them. Do you ever feel that by being in New York City, you’re living in a rarefied bubble of public opinion?

LS: There’s no question that if you live in a major metropolitan area and you’re gay, that it’s a lot easier. The truth of the matter is that a majority of Americans support gay marriage, and those numbers were significantly lower five or 10 years ago. I think the momentum and mindset for America treating everyone equally has evolved.

RD: You recently wrote in an essay for the Huffington Post that Logo is “increasingly more interested in entertainment that is for us than entertainment that is exclusively about us.” How will that play out?

LS: When we launched in 2005, we were in a very different world. We were the first home for this kind of television, and up until then, there were very few images on TV about our audience. So we focused a lot on shows about being gay, and we reflected the world back when most gay people lived in a ghetto. The world has changed a bit, and those ghettos don’t exist as much any more. So we want shows that gay people will enjoy about subjects they care about, like “Baby Wait,” which is about families adopting a child. Many gay people are adopting children, but so are straight people. We think those are stories our audience cares deeply about.

RD: Often fans of niche networks are bitterly disappointed when the network reaches for more mainstream audiences. How do you avoid abandoning the original mission while embracing a wider group of people?

LS: For us, it really comes from the place where what we say and the way we think of our shows is that “gay will always be in our DNA.” It really is the place where we start. We have a filter that we use, and we know from research and social media just how engaged our audience is with the things they’re interested in. We are evolving with our audience — we are a mixed format network. I don’t think we’re abandoning our core at all.

RD: What’s your long-term plan for Logo?

LS: Our plan is to grow the business and continue to make a difference in the world for our audience. About 30% of our hours are Logo-produced original programming, and over time, we will definitely grow that. And from starting out as a small digital network, to where we are now in 50 million homes, that’s a significant number.

RD: In an interview a few years back, you said you felt you’d become “professionally gay” once you came out. Do you still see yourself that way?

LS: The truth is, I see myself and would much prefer to be thought of as a “professional who just happens to be gay.” It’s quite ironic that I left Verizon because I wasn’t comfortable being gay, and now I get paid to be gay.

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