Career & Life Vision Conversation with Bob Tuschman '79
"Find something that makes your heart beat faster."
Bob Tuschman serves as General Manager/Senior Vice President for Food Network, a division of Scripps Networks Interactive. He is responsible for overseeing the development, programming, production and scheduling of both daytime and prime-time series and specials for Food Network and Cooking Channel cable TV networks. He and his team create 800 hours of original content each year. Among the top-tier talent Bob has brought to the network are Guy Fieri, Rachael Ray, Robert Irvine, Ted Allen, Giada De Laurentiis, Ina Garten and Sunny Anderson, helping to develop their highly successful programs (Diners, Drive-Ins and Dives, 30 Minute Meals, Restaurant: Impossible, Chopped, Everyday Italian, Barefoot Contessa and Cooking for Real, respectively). Bob appears as a regular judge on the hit Food Network series Food Network Star. Bob joined Food Network in 1998 as Executive Producer, overseeing In Food Today, one of the network’s first series. In 1999 he was promoted to Vice President, Programming and Production, where he played a key role in creating the highly rated In the Kitchen cooking block airing on weekend mornings and daytime afternoons. Under Bob’s programming leadership, Food Network has become a Top Ten cable network. Prior to joining the network, Bob worked at ABC News as a Producer for Good Morning America as well as on prime-time specials and numerous pilots. He produced pilot, series and documentary projects for HBO, American Movie Classics and CNBC. Bob was born in Cleveland, Ohio, and is a graduate of Princeton University.
Read and watch to learn about Bob's path to Food Network, why getting hit by a car was so helpful to him, and his key to career success and fulfillment.
1. Tell me about your path since graduation.
I had a pretty random career path, at least for the first ten years of it. I started in film production doing crew for commercials. Then I worked on some documentaries and then I became an assistant to Diana Ross. I did research on a feature film for her, became her personal assistant. Then I became a researcher at Good Morning America, ABC News, which led me up the path to become a producer at ABC News. Then I was a freelance producer for a lot of different networks, and then I started at Food Network 18 years ago. I started as an executive producer and worked my way up and am now the general manager and senior vice president of programming.
I really didn't know what I wanted to do in college. I knew I wanted to be something in either entertainment or media. I thought I would probably end up in theater, but it's harder to make a living in theater and there are a lot more opportunities, opportunities to make money that is, in TV. I was an agent, I forgot, I was an agent for actors for two years, so I've always worked around entertainment and media. It's really only been in the last two thirds of my life that I've been in just TV.
3. How did you think about your career as you went?
I've always been very short-term focused in my career. I know that a lot of people have goals from the time they are little like, “I want to achieve this. I want to be president of network. I want to be head of the World Bank.” I never did. I just wanted to really enjoy my life and I wanted to move up, but I never really knew what that meant. I've been lucky that I really focused on doing the best job in every job I've had and I've been promoted. I wasn't seeking promotion. I never sold myself like, “I want that job,” or “I've been here two years I need the next level.” Every couple of years someone would come to me and say, “You've done a great job. We’d love to promote you,” and I would go, “Awesome!” I have been lucky that it has led me to a very high place and I’m now general manager of Food Network, but I didn't dream of doing that. I’ve just been rewarded for doing what I like doing.
4. What do you like doing?
I like being creative. I like developing programming. I like working with a team of people to collaborate on what a show should look like, what it should feel like, what the writing is, what the direction is, what the editing is, what story you're telling, what characters lives you're talking about. As an agent, you're just negotiating the business part of it. I realized that I was never going to be great at that. Other people live for that, and they're the ones who should be doing it. When I was an agent I would get scripts and I would want to doctor the script. I would want to talk about the character arc, and the story arc, and what the tone should be like. That's not the job of an agent, and nobody wanted to hear that from me. So I realized I needed to get on a different route, and that's when I started in TV production.
A really interesting thing happened that really helped me a lot, though I don't recommend it, which is that I got hit by a car. It was one of those life-changing moments where you think, “You know what, my life might be much shorter than I thought it was going to be.” Even though I ate my vegetables and exercised. I thought, “What do I want to spend my life doing? I don't want to spend it in news. I really want to work in something more creative, that tells bigger stories, that has a bigger pallet to tell stories on." And a friend of mine came up to me when I was literally recovering from a car accident. I was in Starbucks writing in my journal, “What do I want to do?” And the woman said, “Oh, I just recommended you for a job at Food Network,” which was a very small fledgling network. It was only in a tiny percentage of homes and the programming was really bad. I thought, “I don’t want to work at that network, it’s kind of crappy." I said I would go in for the interview, I met the people, and I fell in love. With the network, with the people who worked here, because it was a scrappy startup and I wanted to be part of that. And it turned out to be the best decision I ever made in my life.
6. What qualities make a great producer?
To be a great producer you have to be a great communicator, because you're either going to be writing a lot yourself or be looking at writing. I think you really have to know the mechanics of communication. Visual communication also, because it starts with the script, but it ends with a visual presentation, whether it’s film or TV. You have to be a great collaborator. You really have to know how to work with people, because nobody does any job in TV on their own. It's always about a a large creative community coming together. And I think you have to have great people skills. That's something that is unfortunately very hard to learn. You have to have a sense of how to work with people. I would say growing up in the Midwest helps a lot, but if you didn't have that, you just have to be very sensitive to people.
7. What is the biggest misconception about your field?
I think a lot of people look at television and think it's a really hard competitive world. You hear about backstage stories about stars who are horrible human beings. Everybody's a diva and people are hard and competitive and mean. I do not think that's true and I don't think that you succeed by being mean in this business or in any business. You catch many more flies with honey. Especially in a creative field you get better results out of people, you get better results out of yourself, when you are kind to people. When you don't browbeat people. Creative people tend to be very hard on themselves anyway. The last thing they need is their boss yelling at them also. They're probably yelling at themselves inside. I sort of rely on my Midwestern, Cleveland, kindness to stay down to earth. To stay sympathetic to people, empathetic to people. And I think people like working for me, because I have tended to just be a nice guy. You're not any less effective because you're nice. You're not any less smart or any less creative because you're nice. They’re actually mutually compatible and mutually enhancing qualities.
8. How is it to be gay in entertainment?
When I started in TV news there were not a lot of gay people, or not a lot of out gay people-of course there are gay people everywhere. I was intimidated because a lot of the cameramen, soundmen, were these hardcore union guys who were really rough and tumble guys. They were good at what they did, but they were not people I felt comfortable being very out around. So I had sort of a slow start being out and gay in television. But I think that it's filled with creative people and mostly if you're good at what you do and you respect other people, I don't think anybody has an issue with anybody; gay, straight, otherwise, people just are just looking for good people to hire.
9. Tell me about a time you failed.
There are so many times I failed because in TV about 70% of the shows that you launch don't work out. We went through a period here at Food Network a few years ago where our ratings for the first time since I’d been here started declining. We had been in an upward arc for years and years and years and they started going down, and went down pretty steeply. I was devastated by it because I'm the head of programming. So I get our daily report card of how our programs did last night. I was taking it too personally. I was actually really depressed because our ratings were down.
My boss called me into our office and said, “You're a senior leader of this company. You can't afford to be depressed. You need to lead people out of this. You can't get sunk down into it.” The minute she said that it woke me up. I realized, “You know what? Depression is a luxury. It's a luxurious response to failure.” It's nice to think, “I want to go and have a drink and be depressed and to be dressed in black and to be a romantic about it.” You can't afford that in business. You have to be above failure. So you have to look at failure with very clear eyes and say, “Ok, let's analyze why it failed. What didn’t we do right?” Not let it get you down, but let it get you to the next level up. And say, “I'm going to learn from that, and never do that again, and correct those flaws, and give a better product next time.” Unfortunately it took me a long time to realize how to react to failure and how to not be brought down by it.
If I could talk to my 21-year-old self I would say to not take life so seriously. And to explore more and to be willing to try things out knowing that you're not going to succeed at everything. You're not going to be good at everything, and the trick in life is to is to have fun figuring out, “Okay, I'm really good at this. I’m really not good at this.”
You know what, I was not a good agent. I didn't like spending my life doing business negotiations. I didn’t like my life calling people begging them to look at actors and actresses and directors that I represented. And so I just thought after two years, “Ok, that's a dead-end. I don’t want stay at a dead-end. I want to go somewhere where I see a big upward path. And you can only find out those things by exploring and trying and failing. I wish I could tell myself, “Failure is OK.” I would be so hard on myself if I got a B at Princeton, and in the long run it doesn't matter. I wish I had enjoyed classes more. I wish I had enjoyed learning more. I wish I didn't care about grades so much. I wish that I knew that it's okay to try and to fail at something, because that's going to give you all the information you need to take the next big step upward.
11. What career and life advice do you give college graduates?
I think you're twenties really should be about exploration, because when you graduate it's just hard to know what jobs are out there in the world. To me you have to try things to know both what you love and what you don't love, which is equally as important. I found about every two years I got a really clear indication after being a job, “You know what, this is going to be a dead end for me, because I don’t want to go on in this career. Case in point, when I was an agent for two years. I loved being an agent for a very short time. I thought that it was really glamorous. You're in the world of entertainment and film and you're with stars a lot. You're going out to lunch with a lot of movie, TV, and theatre stars. But the actual work involved in being an agent is mostly about salesmanship and negotiation- two of my least good skills. I realized that even though I wanted to be in entertainment, that was not the right route to be in entertainment. So I left that, and that led shortly thereafter to starting in television production and being a researcher at Good Morning America. Once I started there I thought, “There's a lot to jobs I see here that sound really interesting.” That was a route I wanted to be on.
So I just really encourage exploration. I don't think you should get stuck in a job. I don't think there's any great glory to staying in a job when you're not enjoying it. I think you need to realize when it's time to fold your cards and get a new hand.
I love what I do. I’ve worked here for 18 years at Food Network. I have to say I wake up looking forward to going in. There are times when I'm happier on a Sunday night than I am on a Friday night, because I love working. I love the people I get to create programming with. The fact that they pay me on top of it is a really nice side benefit. But honestly, I love creative collaboration. That's what really gets my heart beating faster.
13. How do you hire?
I'm in the very fortunate position that I got to hire a lot of people that I work with, so I really hired people that I want to be around, that I look forward to coming in and spending everyday with. And they're not all like me. A lot of people have a lot of talents that I don't have. And I think that’s one of the most important things as you work your way up and start hiring people. You need to know what you don't do well and hire people who can do things that you can't. A lot of us want to feel like we can do it all. No one can, you’re human. And the smartest bosses are people who realize exactly what they do well, and what they don't do well at all, and they hire people who can do a much better job. And can teach them things and challenge them. I like being with people who challenge me.
14. What’s next for you?
For next steps, I don't think I could find a better TV environment than Food Network. It's been rewarding, it's been fun, it's been the nicest people in front of the camera and behind the camera to work with. I would like another chapter in my life, another act, which will probably involve service more. Which will probably involve teaching and volunteering. There is still a lot of work that I think needs to be done in the world that's not going to be solved by TV, and I would still like to have an effect on the world in the next chapter. I think there's a big juicy next chapter waiting for me.
I think about teaching and education specifically. I really like helping people find their potential. One of things that I've loved about being a senior manager is that I've gotten to help people, shape people's careers, both in front of the camera and behind it. And really see what I think is the gem at the core of someone and help them explode that and get to a higher level. I’ve done that with a lot of our stars, which has been really gratifying. I did it when I was an agent. Found people that I really believed in and then given them the opportunity to shine. I would love to do that for students too. I think about teaching.
I think the key to career success and career enjoyment is finding something that makes your heart beat faster. And if it doesn't, you should find something else, because there’s got to be something. Especially if you're a Princeton student, you know? You're here because you had passion and excitement for something. You need to find what that is that people will pay you to do.
For me it's in a creative field, but some people are business people. They love the thrill of making a deal. They love the thrill of acquiring something. Some people love defending people. Lawyers going through the law to figure out the finer points. Obviously I know nothing about these areas because I’m talking nonsense, but the basic line is that you need to find the thing that you're going to do that's going to carry you through the biggest arc of your life. You will be working for probably thirty or forty years. You’ve got to find something that you really enjoy. That really uses your natural talents, skills, and curiosities.
For me, starting from when I was a kid, I would be sitting three inches from a TV. I was like three years old sitting in front of a TV show and was so wrapped up by storytelling. By visuals and by stars and music and the drama of it. I would pay attention to commercials. I knew every star's name. I knew the directors’ names. I would stay and read the credits to the end of TV shows. I mean it’s crazy, but I knew that's what made me excited. I felt the same thing in theater and the same thing in television and when I worked in film. There's something about a creative group of people getting together and the merging of words and image and story and character that just excites me. It always has and always will.
This interview was conducted and condensed by Lisa Einstein '13