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December 6, 2017

SCA Alumni Stories: Valerie Meraz

How did your studies in USC’s MFA Peter Stark Program prepare you for your career as a network executive? The Peter Stark Producing Program prepared me for a career as a network executive by, among other things, providing classes on story development and film financing, providing real world advice on how to navigate the business and by facilitating summer internships, which for me led to a full-time job.

What is your most memorable experience as a student in the USC Cinematic Arts? The experiences I cherish from my time in the Stark Program center around the films I shot with friends and family. I collaborated with my friend Carol Shine who was in the directing program at USC, and we shot a short film at my mother in law’s home starring an unknown actress, Merrin Dungey, who went on to be a series regular on many TV shows. I shot two short films starring my nieces, nephews, and cousins that are wonderful keepsakes today. By the time of my graduation from USC, I had the knowledge and sense of direction I needed to carve out my path in the industry.

What has your career journey been like since graduating from USC? I entered the Stark program to learn more about the creative film process and make myself a more attractive candidate for jobs in the area of creative development. I found that the field was so competitive, that I had trouble even getting hired as an assistant in development when I was already in the industry working at a studio. My internship at Disney during the last year of the Stark Program helped me create relationships to land a job at Disney in development a few months before I graduated. Since graduating from USC, I have been blessed with continual employment, first at Disney, then at Showtime Networks, and for the last six years at Turner.

Provide us some insight into your role as the SVP of Content & Acquisitions for Turner Entertainment Networks. My position affords me the opportunity to architect, negotiate, and oversee a large volume of complex content deals for linear and non-linear platforms. More specifically, my team is expected to track and secure top tier series and films to play across our multiple Turner television networks, such as TBS, TNT, Adult Swim, Cartoon Network, Turner Classic Movies, and our new SVOD service FilmStruck.

What inspired you to pursue a corporate career in the entertainment industry? Although I was originally attracted to the idea of producing content, once I graduated from the Stark Program, the reality of that lifestyle seemed incompatible with the traditional family life I wanted for myself. Despite having to attend events or network to maintain relationships important to one’s career in the industry, a corporate position would allow me time to enjoy my family on a daily basis. The world of film acquisitions spoke to my desire to focus not only on commercial films but would allow me the opportunity to evaluate independent and foreign films as well.

What are some of your biggest challenges in your current role? The viewing habits of consumers, which increasingly include watching TV programs on streaming services and sometimes canceling their cable subscriptions, have created financial challenges for the entire pay TV industry. This shift in consumer behavior is creating a need for Turner to simultaneously continue to develop compelling original programming, develop new businesses, and for me specifically, the necessity to license more cost-effective acquired programs in an environment where ad revenue is declining at concerning rates.

What is the most rewarding part of your position as SVP of Content Acquisitions? I’ve been a TV network buyer for 17 years and I’ve enjoyed the opportunity to bring a content creator’s dream and vision to a wider audience. I also still get excited about how a particular show can bring a larger or new audience to a network. Equally satisfying is the possibility of creating a financial win for my company when I buy a quality product at the right price.

Given the staggering amount of women and people of color who hold TV and Film executive positions, what do you believe is a solution to increase diversity in C-suite positions in the entertainment industry? I believe the number of women and people of color who hold TV and film executive positions needs to increase significantly to improve the images of diverse Americans we see in the media; however, I believe progress in underway. Channing Dungey’s appointment to the President of ABC’s entertainment group and Pearlena Igbokwe’s position as President of Universal Television are two of several encouraging developments over the last few years. I think the presence of more executives of color on corporate boards could facilitate the search for CEOs to include more diverse candidates, and an increase in structured mentorship/executive development opportunities for executives of color in senior management positions could encourage diverse executives to keep striving to reach the top.

You are a part of the American Black Film Festival’s (ABFF) Advisory Board. Can you tell us about what that entails? As a member of the ABFF Advisory Board, I coordinate year-round with CEO Jeff Friday and his leadership team, to increase the levels of corporate sponsorship for the festival, and support their efforts to bring diverse talent into the industry through events and educational programs.

What advice would you give aspiring network executives? I would encourage aspiring network executives to consider graduate school at an institution which can provide both training in the creative and financial aspects of the business. You can never read too many articles on the entertainment business and trends in the industry. Consume as much content as possible and learn how to compellingly share your opinions about that programming. Create a network of friends and mentors who support you, and be eager to provide whatever assistance you can to them as well.