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March 12, 2013

MC@Work: Confessions of a Hit Woman

As chairman of Twentieth Century Fox Television, Dana Walden has overseen some of TV's most iconic series, including The X-Files, 24, and Modern Family.

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Photo Credit: Christopher Sturman

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Did you always want to be in the entertainment business?
When I graduated from the University of Southern California, I had a boyfriend who knew publicist Alan Nierob of Rogers & Cowan, and he suggested I talk to him. When I walked into Alan's office, he was on the phone with Victoria Principal. Then his assistant came in and said, "Mary Frann [of Newhart] is on the second line." Then Danny Sullivan, the [Indianapolis 500 — winning] race car driver, called. It was clearly an exciting environment.

When you were 31, Peter Chernin, the former head of News Corp. (which owns Twentieth Century Fox Television), asked you to move from the PR side to programming. How did that come about?
In 1995, I had been chosen to make a short presentation about the state of the TV business at a company retreat in Santa Barbara. At the time, I felt we were not real competitors in network television. The studio wasn't prolific; we didn't have much of a brand. I thought, Even if it sounds harsh, I'm going to be very candid. It was my Jerry Maguire moment. When I got back to L.A., Peter Chernin called and asked if I'd be interested in moving into the creative area.

Since then, you've cultivated a reputation as something of a TV Midas. How do you know when you have a hit on your hands?
Typically, I can tell from a pilot script. But a lot of luck goes into the next stage — the casting, who's going to direct, the time slot. When Calista Flockhart read for Ally McBeal, I saw this perfect chemistry between the words on the page and the person who would embody that character. When I got the first e-mail suggesting we cast Zooey Deschanel in New Girl, I thought, That's exactly right. In the pilot of Modern Family, when Cam is holding up the baby with the Lion King theme, it was very clear we had something special.

Any misfires that caught you by surprise?
Journeyman [2007] was an incredibly soulful drama about a guy who traveled back in time, and you watched him fall in love with his wife. It was NBC's highest-testing pilot since ER, but it launched during a tumultuous time at the network [NBC was fourth place in the ratings] and they bailed on it very quickly. It was extremely disappointing.


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