Male, pale and stale? Not in subscription TV

If you're looking for female leaders in the Australian television industry, look no further than subscription TV (STV) where many of the local operations of high-profile channels are run by women, including MTV, Disney, Discovery, Aurora, Viacom and BBC Worldwide.

Over at STV's largest stakeholder Foxtel, eight female senior executives report to a male CEO, while women make up four of the eleven board positions on the sector's representative body, the Australian Subscription Television and Radio Association (ASTRA).

It's a far cry from the more traditional broadcasters where CEO positions have been and continue to be dominated by a small handful of men.

"About 53% of viewers are women. The nation's population is 51% women," says ASTRA's outgoing CEO Petra Buchanan. "In my view it makes sense that we should be at a gender equity basis in the industry."

Buchanan decided to implement an industry-wide survey of subscription TV's local workforce in order to determine the contribution of women. She found women fill 44% of the sector's 4657 salaried, part-time and contract positions, and that more men than women are working part-time.

Buchanan tells Women's Agenda she has a few theories as to why so many women reach leadership positions in the sector. Having spent 10 years in communications and public affairs at Discovery Communications in the United States, she's seen how the evolution of cable opened doors up to women who were simply fed up with the more traditional broadcasters.

"When the cable industry was growing in the 1980s in the US, women provided a good base of skills," she says. "You had people who were frustrated, people who reached the glass ceiling, so to speak – all these number twos and threes who said 'I'm getting out of here; I'm going to start my own thing'."

While Buchanan has not worked extensively in free-to-air TV so can't compare it to the subscription model, she says STV has provided her with industry experience she couldn't have imagined picking up elsewhere, particularly during her time travelling the world with Discovery.

In fact, Buchanan says she's almost always been in broadcasting environments where women have been the key decision-makers.

She believes the opportunities for entrepreneurial women are vast as the sector continues to grow in Australia, as well as for those looking to take advantage of the flexible environment the model can offer. It carries a level of freedom not seen in the cut-throat and advertising-based model of free-to-air, where programs that don't rate well immediately are quickly taken off air.

"We refer to it as the HBO model," says Buchanan, citing the US network that's produced a large quantity of quality and unique television programs. "Providing great programing is what it's really about. That means you can make a great commitment over a long period. The way you can build a story can be much more deliberate and long-term, rather than merely there to carry a viewer through the ad breaks."

It's an industry for innovators, says Buchanan, and one she believes has seen more change over the past 12 months than in its entire (albeit relatively short) history in Australia. "It's a dynamic place to be right now and I think it will continue to be a rapidly changing environment over the next few years," she says.

And it's growing. Subscription television reaches one in three Australians, according to OzTAM, with 7.3 million Australians subscribed to the service in 2012.  

"It's still diversifying," says Buchanan. "The digital revolution's changing people's capabilities to tap into content, then there's the NBN coming online. All these things are creating perfect storm of this highly savvy consumer marketplace, great content and technology merging it all."

Buchanan started with ASTRA in 2009 and has helped to develop unified policy positions representing the subscription sector, as well as the association's conference, awards and graduate programs. She's currently assisting the board with hiring her replacement.

Born in Australia, Buchanan moved to LA when she was seven, returning in 2003 to take the role of VP for marketing and communications at technology company Unisys.

She says she's "having conversations" regarding her next career move.

Angela Priestley

Angela Priestley is the Publisher and founding editor of Women's Agenda. She's an author, journalist and passionate advocate for workplace gender equality and diversity. Her first book is Women Who Seize the Moment.

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