Even feeling the need to ask about how gender affects a workplace environment can feel frustrating, but until wage gap issues get resolved, it's a thing. Emmy-nominated TV producer Casey Patterson has made a mark in a world that's topped mostly by men, stepping away from an impressive career at Viacom to launch her own company, Casey Patterson Entertainment. She calls the shots at events like Lip Sync Battle, the MTV Movie Awards, and others (including a stint at Buckingham Palace to cover Queen Elizabeth's Diamond Jubilee in 2003) and found success by going with her gut.
"I do a very specific kind of entertainment: It's generally live, it's celebrity talent-driven, it's pop culture and celebrity culture, and those things tend to be very emotional. [It's] the power of live television; the idea of what it means for a lot of people to come together around one event," she explained. "Whether it's an election or the Grammys, it's the feeling you get when you know you're in an experience with a lot of people and will be able to share it and talk about it — I'm a fan of that feeling. It's a profound thing when you get it right, when you gather that many people for one thing or person or honour. It's an amazingly unique space to occupy."
Here, more wise words on building a career, going out on your own, and letting your emotions have a seat at the table.
On knowing what she wanted to do early:
"I was the MTV generation. Prior to MTV, I would watch TV with my parents or grandparents and it was very much an adult forum; it never really spoke to me. When MTV came on, I'd go home after school and it felt like it was for me — I felt really, really connected to that brand. It was such a strong, powerful, youth-culture brand. I remember being very moved watching things, like seeing Michael Jackson moonwalk for the first time. It was such a visceral reaction. I never wanted to be in front of the camera — I knew from a young age I wanted to make moments like that happen.
"When it was time for me to find my first job, to try and crawl my way into the business, that was the only place. There was nothing else in my mind, no other option. I had complete tunnel vision and was young enough to think, 'I'll just figure it out' and passionate enough to just know it was in my DNA. I knew I wanted to be a part of it, I knew I could bring something to it, and I just started calling all the right channels. I called HR, heads of internship programs and eventually found someone who was willing to talk to me. I think she could hear how I excited I would be to be in that environment."
On going out on her own:
"It was wonderful that I worked for a company I loved and believed in. I took a lot of pride in the networks I worked for; my identity, in a good way, was wrapped up in those brands. I'd done everything at a corporate level I wanted to and recognised in myself that I had more of an entrepreneurial spirit. It took me a moment to find courage to [leave], to really wrap my head around how much of my success was based on the letterhead and the title and the company I worked for and how much was me. Could I be successful without those big entities? If I'm just walking through the door as myself?
Lean into those things you are most passionate about, and stop trying to be all things to all people.
"I could have stayed or found another corporate job, change up my career without going out on my own and placing that kind of bet on myself. It took me a moment to muster up the courage to really stand on my own, to have faith that the experience and the relationships I built would now give me the skill sets I needed to go out on my own. You have to be very honest with yourself about what you are and what you aren't. That was very helpful: to finally accept that I should stop swimming upstream of certain things. We all have to learn to play to our strengths and learn you don't have to be all things. Lean into those things you are most passionate about, and stop trying to be all things to all people. I stopped wanting to be successful in all genres and decided to be really good at this one path that I'm very passionate about. That process of eliminating things, taking the pressure off myself — that was very helpful to me. I remember a very powerful figure in media saying to me that creatives don't make good executives because they're too passionate, and that sort of struck me. I saw it as a challenge. You can't be successful in business without passion for what you're doing — I can't see any other way to success. You have to love it and fight for it; fight on its behalf. It was a tipping point for me. I knew I could run a business and be a creative person and be successful at both, but it really said something to me about the corporate structure. Maybe what's not right for me is sitting in rooms with people who tell me those things. I wanted to be out in the world making decisions for myself."
On a big success with a slow start:
"I entered the marketplace at exactly the right time with the right product: Lip Sync Battle. From a format perspective, it was new. It's not really a competition show, there are no real stakes or prizing. There are no tropes. This is so rare and really unique — I've never seen this before — [but] as we were taping it, it was incredibly difficult to get people to sign up. Big celebrities were not going on television and dressing up in drag and singing and dancing when they're not singers and dancers. They're not making themselves vulnerable like that. We were booking it, and I will never forget the moment in time when it was like, 'Oh my gosh, what we're asking people is just too much. We're asking them for hours and hours of their time.' We weren't able to book enough people to fulfil our first network order, but the president of the network was there every single day at the taping and he saw that the shows we were able to book were just magic. We had five that were just amazing, and he doubled down and said, 'Keep going. I'm going to double the order.'
"The minute Anne Hathaway jumped up on that wrecking ball, we kind of knew. No one had seen it yet, but they ordered more right then and there."
On working in a field dominated by men:
"The big live event companies are nearly all owned by men and are historically driven by men. Dick Clark Productions, Bob Mitchell, Ken Ehrlich. There are unbelievably talented women [though], and I work with a lot of them. I created a show called Guys Choice, and the open secret in Hollywood was that it was completely run by women.
"I'm definitely aware of it, but it isn't top of mind for me. I'm successful in my field, so I don't feel kept back by anyone or anything. I've worked for incredible men who were nothing but supportive, and I came up at MTV who had Judy McGrath, an incredibly compassionate woman running it. A strong female leader in that role—I'm so happy that's in my DNA.
Fight the tendency to make yourself smaller to make other people more comfortable.
"Out in the world, I definitely hear some outlandish things and experience some kind of shocking stereotypical moments that I wasn't really even aware of most of my career. All too recently I've worked with one very high-powered executive and was discussing a production when he likened my producing style to his wife's shopping habit, as in 'Maybe you don't need so many accessories.' It was a discussion about technology like VR and it's role in a production and whether we should be using it. That's what the moment was reduced to, and it'll just stop you in your tracks. You get stunned by those moments. Within the last two years I was having a discussion with a legendary personality that I had hired. We were talking passionately about the point of view on somewhere we were collaborating on. I was really confident in a show I was producing and [saying] that were a certain way to go. You're having a good debate: 'Everything's valid, but at the end of the day, this feels right.' That person, a man frustrated in the moment, described that as haughty. It was a passionate point of view about a creative take, and it was one of those moments where you say to yourself, 'That would not be a word that would be used about a man with a passionate point of view.'"
On keeping emotion in the game:
"The biggest challenge I've had is that wherever you go, whatever rooms you're sitting in, when you speak passionately or emphatically about something—meaning you just happen to love what you're doing — sometimes that scares people. We're in the business of creating art and magic and celebrating movies and music, [but] it's perceived in a different way when a man speaks passionately and definitively about something with a strong point of view. There's a gender line there, and it's fascinating to me. It's a double-edged sword. A younger me, earlier in my career...that unbridled enthusiasm is what opened doors for me. It's hard to go up against that. It's a very winning thing to see someone who's incredibly passionate and enthusiastic who's never going to take no for an answer. It's a quality people who hire you want to tap into and ride all the way to success.
"It's such a beautiful thing to see women in action executing whatever they're most passionate about. There's no way to succeed at what I do without being incredibly driven, but at the same time you realise that that can be a little scary for people. It you're a woman, it complicates it. You have to find a way to be comfortable with that, and fight the tendency to make yourself smaller to make other people more comfortable."