September 29, 2010

When a woman’s running the production…

Posted in Between Us column, Business, Diversity, Entertainment, Women at 9:06 pm by dinaheng

Susette Hsiung has a a talent for taking risks, learning quickly, and turning each experience into the next career success.

As senior vice president of production for the Disney ABC Cable Networks Group, Hsiung is responsible for overseeing production for all Disney Channel, Disney XD, ABC Family and SOAPnet programming.

Whether it’s leading productions in the Disney Channel Original Movie Franchise (think “Camp Rock,” “High School Musical” or “The Cheetah Girls”) or supervising “Greek” and “Lincoln Heights,” Hsiung relishes bringing both economic and creative instincts to the job.

“After college, I went into the training program at Bloomingdale’s,” Hsiung says, sitting in a conference room at the Disney Channel offices in Burbank. “Most people elected to be a buyer, but I came out of an economics program, and going to the fashion shows didn’t interest me. I liked the idea of getting people into the store every day — like preparing for the opening of a show.”

So Hsiung ended up leaving the retail business, and joined MTV as a bookkeeper in the production department. The fledgling cable network was two years old at the time, and Hsiung quickly moved up the ladder. After five years, she was producing signature shows, and looking for the next challenge, so moved to the Comedy Channel (now known as Comedy Central).

She went to school at night to get her MBA, and then J. Walter Thompson called. They wanted to introduce the Internet to consumers, and hired Hsiung to produce live commercials that would make Prodigy, one of the nation’s first online service providers, a household name.

A few years later, opportunity knocked again, and Hsiung jumped at the chance, returning to MTV and moving to Singapore to launch three channels for them in Asia.

“It was a difficult marketplace, and eye-opening to me to learn what different people thought was cutting edge,” Hsiung remembers. “In China, what was considered artistically ground-breaking was Michael  and Janet Jackson’s music video in black and white. What the audience really wanted was their own local music, so we did two feeds (in Mandarin and English) and customized another.”

In 1997, she moved to the Disney Channel as vice president, production, and has continued to rise in the ranks ever since.

“I love the camaraderie and team work here,” she says. “My responsibilities run the gamut  from movies to concerts. We work with production companies, and give the parameters that the network’s looking for. There’s a brand and a tone we want. We make sure the right crew is attached, and that they have the level of excellence Disney expects.”

Since Disney is financing the productions, Hsiung’s staff keeps track of the budget and how projects are executed. As the woman at the top, she’s charged with keeping an eye on maintaining efficiencies and staying within budget.

“I’ve never felt that being a woman or a minority has been an impediment in my career,” Hsiung says. “When I went to Asia, people saw me as American first, and as a woman second. I didn’t have to fit in the classic role of what an Asian woman should be.  It was one of the best experiences of my career.

“We had staff people from all over the territory, and would have a Taiwan producer working next to an Indian producer. There were language and cultural barriers. I had to learn how to motivate people and teach them the MTV brand of edgy rebelliousness, the language of teenagers.”

She says that being a successful leader requires figuring out how to motivate people to do their best. How does she do it?

“I try to get out of my office more, and not rely on e-mail and telephone, to talk to people,” Hsiung says. “When I started, I was one of very few Asian Americans in the business. I think now — in front of the camera, behind the camera, and in our executive meetings — we’re seeing more diversity.”

Many Asian parents urge their children to become doctors or lawyers, professions that are seen as prestigious and secure. While the path to achieving success in those fields is clear, there is no set road map for people interested in careers in entertainment, she notes.

“There are creative people, technical people, production people, and more,” she says. “While I say my entertainment career was a happy accident, I took opportunities, and made good choices. I liked start-ups. MTV was a start-up. No one knew what the Internet was. International was a budding field.

“My advice to people is try different things. Find what you’re good at, and what you like. Generate it toward a goal. My mother was a mathematician, and my father was a professor of government. One wanted me to be in the sciences, and one wanted me to be in the social arts. I had to find a place in the middle.”

Clearly, Hsiung has succeeded at that, too.

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