The Playmaker

blog Sep 02, 2022

            Not many people have as impressive a resume as Christina Norman. Former CEO of the Oprah Winfrey Network. Past president of MTV. One-time president of VH1. Now Head of Content for arguably one of the most influential cultural platforms around—the 450 members of the National Basketball Players Association (NBPA).

            But ask this seasoned creative executive included in The Hollywood Reporter’s “Power 100 Women in Entertainment” list how she would describe herself, and she will say, “A work in progress.” The answer reflects the unwillingness to be boxed in that has inspired some of her groundbreaking work. “What I love to be able to bring to what I do is part creativity, business, experience, innovation and curiosity, and push that forward into hopefully finding something new.”

            Among those new things she has been part of was the envelope-pushing work in the early days of MTV, which included airing one of the first public service announcements about condom usage. “Back then, we called it prosocial work,” she says of the advocacy initiative. “That was a big deal for us to do that.” Then there was the stand against hate crimes; after the 1998 murder of Matthew Shepard, a young gay man, in Fort Collins, Colorado, MTV went dark for a whole day. “We just scrolled the names and victims of hate crimes across the country,” Norman recalls.

            At the NBPA—which she describes as the “labor” to the National Basketball Association’s “management”—she leads the effort to maximize the players’ potential impact, both for themselves and for others. To those who might question why such well-paid athletes need a union, she says to take a look at history. “You’ll find a time when, especially the Black players in the union, had to go around the back door to get into a hotel. They couldn’t stay in the hotel where the white players did; they weren’t paid equally.”
            For Norman, her NBPA role is both a responsibility and an opportunity—a responsibility to the players to help them make the most of their time in the game and an opportunity to leverage the sport’s reach for social impact.

            “This is a great moment that they have as athletes, but how are they preparing themselves for what’s next and seeing all the opportunities that can exist now?” she says. “Our goal is to help them see how they can monetize their name, image and likeness rights, and to create opportunities for them to monetize all of their other rights, for them to be involved in content, for them to be involved in licensing deals . . . ” As a storyteller, she wants to help “change the way that the world sees these men and sees what they can contribute, sees them as more than just an athlete.”


‘More than a game’

            “Back in the day, “it used to be that only one or two players had a platform,” Norman notes. “Now, because of social media, every player has a platform and they’re seeing what their influence can be.” Norman’s creative program at the NBPA, officially called THINK450, is not a cookie-cutter program.

            “Everyone can have their own path and has their own possibilities,” she says. “So, what works for one doesn’t necessarily work for another.” Norman mentions the Brooklyn Nets’ Patty Mills—“an incredible advocate; he uses his platform for all sorts of good.” They have done some work together and are having talks around some kids’ programming ideas, she says. “I’m like, ‘Let’s talk about this. Let’s figure out how we can use this platform to spread what you want to do.’”

            As part of her work, Norman has a Christmas movie in development and also wants to do game shows. “My job is to put possibilities in front of players who may not think of themselves as creative in that way. I can help expose players to those possibilities, be a resource, be a partner, bring them in and hopefully we can all benefit.”

            One brainchild project has been Game Change Game, a two-hour documentary that premiered at the recent Tribeca Film Festival. It offers a behind-the-scenes look at how the basketball league coped during the turbulent summer of 2020 in the wake of George Floyd’s murder, when the season was played out in a lockdown bubble.

            It was “an incredible storytelling moment,” Norman says. “We follow the players through that time of them, in many ways, saving sports—like, none of us had anything to do, and then all of a sudden there’s relief, there’s something to celebrate, there’s something to be a part of. And the fact that they stood up and asked for accountability and used their moment to not just be about a game, but to be about something more than a game . . . ”

            While the documentary is intended to be not just a record of a moment but part of an ongoing movement, not everybody sees it that way. Norman notes the response from one distributor to whom she pitched the idea: “‘Oh, aren’t we moving on from that now?’ And I was like, ‘Yeah, I’m not, and neither are our players…’ They’re of this community. They represent this community and they really stepped up in a way that is leading this community.”


‘Path of discovery’

            Norman grew up in the South Bronx, and her Caribbean parents (Dad from the Virgin Islands, Mom from Puerto Rico) were “pretty traditional people” who weren’t very comfortable with her pursuing a freelance career in the entertainment industry. “Like, ‘You’re not gonna go to someplace every day? What do you mean that job you’re on ends tomorrow? Did you get fired?’ No, we’re just done.”

            She cut her teeth working on television commercials, then got a gig on the indie Black horror film Def by Temptation, starring Samuel L. Jackson. “That was really my start of feeling that I could actually forge a career in this industry.”

            Plans changed a bit when she and her husband, Charles Hunt, who also works in the industry, had a baby. “At that point, it was like, well, we both can’t be freelance; somebody needs to go and get a real job and get health insurance.” Having freelanced for MTV, she won a position in the production management department.

            Those were exciting times—the cable industry was new, and people were trying new things, which “started me on a path of discovery that I didn’t even think was possible at the time. I was able to maneuver a little more freely. There were a lot of women in positions of authority then, a lot of people who were willing to take a chance on this emerging industry.”

            In those early days she worked with a lot of up-and-coming names, such as Chris Rock, Ben Stiller, and Adam Sandler. “MTV had a unique way of speaking to the audience,” she remembers. “We didn’t talk down to the audience; we spoke to the audience. [They] expected a high level of creativity from the work that we did.”

            It was while she was at MTV that Norman’s leadership talents began to emerge in addition to her creative ones. She realized the need not only to have a good idea, but then also have the ability “to figure out how to make it happen. And that’s a skill that I think I carry forward with me in everything that I do.”

            Ultimately, Norman was appointed the network’s head of marketing, from where she was tapped for the president’s desk at rival VH1 (later returning to MTV in the same role). There was an element of risk in the move—the network’s ratings were down, and it had “kind of lost its relevance and its way with the audience.” It was “a very white brand,” Norman says. “I think Mariah Carey was like the most they would do at the time. What I saw was an opportunity to take this nostalgia halo that VH1 had and open the aperture and make it more accessible to people.”

            Widening that audience included introducing shows like Flavor of Love featuring former Public Enemy member Flava Flav. “There were things like Hip Hop Honors [an annual awards show] that we really were able to claim that nostalgia halo, honor those artists, honor that history and that legacy, and put out the welcome mat at VH1 to a bunch of people who had only seen a do not enter sign for a long time.”


‘Someone sees me’

            Norman acknowledges the people who were a big encouragement to her along the way. First, she mentions Judy McGrath, who was head of MTV when Norman was working in promotions there. “She was the first person to ask me, ‘Where do you see yourself? What do you want to do here?’ To think that something like that could be possible for me was kind of a revelation in some way.” Others Norman names include Debra Lee, former president and CEO of BET (“unless she is where she is, I’m not here”).

            There is a special shoutout for Norman’s husband. “He’s helped me make all of this possible,” she says. “You know, there’s always this talk about can women have it all, etcetera. You cannot have it all. You cannot have it all at the same time, and you certainly cannot have it all without a lot of help in that regard.” So, it was crucial “having a husband who supported me, who believed in me, who when I called and said, ‘This asshole boss needs me to stay here late,’ he was like, ‘Then stay there and get the work done. Don’t let them say that you can’t do it.’”

            Given the help she has received, she feels a responsibility to help younger women along. She tells of receiving a text from someone who had worked for her at one time who was at a concert when they “had a moment of revelation” that made them aware of how she had inspired them, and they wanted to say thank you. “What’s better than that, to know that you walked through your roles in a way that was the model and the example that you wanted to be?”

            There are many different ways to be supportive, Norman says. Sometimes it’s just being a listening ear. Or there may be occasions for being more actively involved in someone’s career as a sponsor. Simply letting people who work for you know that they are noticed and appreciated is huge. She remembers getting notes of encouragement from some of her leaders when she was starting out: sometimes they were “all the fuel your soul needed to move forward: Someone sees me. Someone thinks I can do it.”

            One of the enduring lessons Norman brought away from her time working with Oprah was that “love is in the details.” All the little things matter, she goes on—remembering someone’s name, how you present yourself in a room. “That’s what makes you memorable, that’s what makes you successful, in many ways. Because what that says is I care enough to pay attention to things.”

            Having moved from creative roles to management and leadership, Norman has clearly had transferable skills. From her experience in different aspects of the business world, what traits are needed whatever the discipline you might be focused on?

            “Do what you say you’re going to do,” she offers first. “That’s the most transferable skill that there is—be true to your word. If you are dependable to people, that is gold.” Another important leadership skill, she says: “Don’t throw your people under the bus. Stand up for your team.” And finally, be a clear communicator.

            “Those are the kinds of skills that I think everybody needs in any role. Somebody once told me when I was at OWN that the job of the CEO is to set the vision, make sure you hire the right people, make sure they have the resources, and let them go. I still carry [that] ith me. What is the vision? What are we trying to get done? Who do I have around me?”

            Not micromanaging is important, too. Instead, focus on “clearing the decks for folks,” she says. “That’s an incredibly powerful transferable skill. I’ve always found when I’ve empowered people who work with me, they want to work twice as hard. They absolutely want the opportunity to shine themselves.”



From an interview with Louis Carr