The Interviews: Margaret Loesch
From the bottom to the top, Margaret Loesch never stops learning.
Millions of kids might never have come to love the Smurfs or The Mighty Morphin Power Rangers if not for Margaret Loesch.
But early on, she did not seem destined for a career in entertainment. The daughter of an Air Force general, Loesch grew up traveling the world and went on to study political science at the University of Southern Mississippi and international relations and urban development at Louisiana State University in New Orleans.
When she broke into the networks in 1971, it was as a clerk-typist at ABC. She looks back on that entry-level job with pride. "No job is too small," she says. "By starting there and working my way up, I learned a lot."
And work her way up she did. From 1979 to 1984, Loesch worked at Hanna-Barbera Productions — first as vice-president for children's programming and then as executive vice-president — where she was responsible for the development and production of their prolific animated programming.
Her next role was as president and CEO of Marvel Comics' television and film production arm, Marvel Productions, where she was executive producer of multiple series, including G.I. Joe, Transformers, My Little Pony and Jim Henson's Muppet Babies.
Loesch's path was fueled by her constant curiosity and eagerness to learn. In 1990, she became the president and CEO of Fox Kids Network, Worldwide, and later became the founding president and CEO of Crown Media's U.S. Hallmark Channel.
In addition, she has served on the board of trustees of Sesame Workshop (the producers of Sesame Street) and currently serves as vice-chair of the board of directors for the Television Academy Foundation.
Loesch was interviewed in August 2017 and April 2018 by Jenni Matz, director of The Interviews: An Oral History of Television, a program of the Television Academy Foundation. The following is an edited excerpt of their conversations. The entire interview can be seen at TelevisionAcademy.com/Interviews.
Q: What was your first professional job out of college?
A: I worked for a brokerage in New Orleans as a commodities research clerk. After a year, my roommate and I developed a plan that we'd go to Europe. So I went to my boss and said, "I'd like to take a leave of absence," and he said, "That's wonderful! Why don't you make the leave permanent?"
I said, "I thought I was doing a good job," and he said, very prophetically, "Margaret, you are not cut out for this business. The suggestion box is always filled with your ideas. You're always trying to change things, and people who invest their money with us don't want to hear about changes. You should be in a more creative business."
I was shocked and dismayed. But I went to Europe and, a little while after, I moved out to California and got an offer at ABC as a clerk-typist. I knew nothing about the business. I learned from the bottom up. That was 1971.
Q: How did you rise through the ranks?
A: When I was a clerk-typist, I worked with film editors. In the evenings I'd sit with them, and they loved showing me how to work a Moviola and cut film. I became a production clerk, and then I was promoted to the promo department, where we made the sales films and the on-air promos. That's when I really learned production.
Q: What brought you to NBC in 1975?
A: One of our producers at ABC left to work in the children's programs department at NBC. He called me one day and asked if I would be interested in coming over. I said, "I don't really know anything about programming," and he said, "You'll learn." So I went to NBC as manager of children's programs. The day I started, he handed me a stack of storyboards and said, "You're going to be on these shows."
One of them was The Pink Panther Show. I loved the show, and I had to go to the studio and start giving notes. The Pink Panther [the feature version] had won Oscars, and I got to tell the creators what I thought was right or wrong about the [TV] show. Oh, my God!
Q: How did that work out?
A: The first time I went, I was supposed to meet with Friz Freleng — he had created Sylvester and Tweety and was a cocreator of Bugs Bunny. I waited and waited. Finally this man asked, "Are you waiting for Friz? He left to play golf about 20 minutes ago." Friz wanted nothing to do with me.
The next day I called his office and found out when he was going to be there. I said to his secretary, "Please don't tell him I'm coming," so she didn't. I drove over and she brought me into the office and I introduced myself and he looked at me in a very surly manner. I said, "Look, Mr. Freleng..."
He said, "Don't call me Mr. Freleng. Call me Friz."
I said, "Friz, I don't want to give you notes. I want you to teach me how to..."
He said, "You want me to teach you how to do your job?"
I said, "No, I want you to teach me how you do your job, and then I'll learn from that." We became great friends. He taught me so much and he saved me from being an utter fool in the business.
Q: Were there other female executives at this time?
A: There were a few. But it was a man's business. And even though that was the situation at all the networks, I never thought that being a female was a handicap, because of the way people would treat me.
Because I was so interested in what they did, people were very generous with their time. They were always very open and rather delighted that someone was interested in what they were doing. I didn't dwell on what I couldn't do — I focused on what I could do.
Q: How did you come to join Hanna-Barbera in 1979?
A: They were clients, and we were doing shows together. My new boss at NBC didn't like the work I had been doing on the animated and live-action shows. But Joe Barbera and Bill Hanna had always said to me, "If you ever want to leave NBC, call us first." So I called Bill, and they created a job for me as head of children's programs. Eventually they changed my title to executive vice-president.
It was a wonderful experience at Hanna-Barbera. It was the greatest five years of my career. We averaged 13 series a year on the three networks. And one of our most successful shows was one that I developed with our writers and with the Belgian creator, Peyo, which was The Smurfs.
Q: How did that come about?
A: Fred Silverman [then president of NBC] called and said, "There's this property called The Smurfs." We'd never heard of it. I sent one of my associates down the street, and he found Smurf key chains and toys and dumped them out on the conference table in Joe Barbera's office. Joe looked at them and said, "All these little blue bastards look the same."
I said, "Aren't they cute?"
He said, "It's your show."
So I worked with Peyo. I'd go to Brussels with my team, and he would come here. While we were developing it, our producer Gerard Baldwin was making a little sales clip for the merchandising people and for the affiliates' meeting. When Fred (who loved the show) saw the clip, he said, "You've got to change the music and add a laugh track."
But we didn't change the music or add a laugh track. To this day young people come up to me and say, "I love The Smurfs and I love the music!" I've also had people say to me, "I'm so happy it didn't have canned laughter."
Q: But there was a risk for you...
A: I've done a lot of things that were risks. Power Rangers [Mighty Morphin Power Rangers] was a risk and X-Men [X-Men: The Animated Series] was a risk. The shows that I really believed in — on many of them, I felt like a lone wolf.
The one serious confrontation I had was with the head of children's programs at NBC, Mickey Dwyer. Early on in the development of The Smurfs, her office conveyed to me, "You can't tell the Smurfs apart. Make them different colors."
This actually turned out to be a great note. I thought, I'm not making them different colors, because I'd have to go tell Peyo and he'll kill me. I went to our head artist, Iwao Takamoto, and said, "Iwao, can we accessorize the Smurfs? I think Peyo would accept it because we're not changing the design."
We accessorized each Smurf so that kids could tell them apart. So while it was a misguided note, the reason behind the note was right.
Q: There was one property you were trying for when you were at Hanna-Barbera...
A: Yes. I was a longtime fan of Kermit the Frog.
At Hanna-Barbera, I got the idea to do an animated Kermit, but Jim Henson consistently turned me down. He didn't want to confuse the audience with characters that were rendered as puppets to also be animated.
I had been offered a job at Marvel as CEO and president, which was a huge jump for me. I was very interested in it, but I loved Hanna-Barbera and working for Joe and Bill. Still, I accepted the job and I left Hanna-Barbera thinking, I'll never be able to do Jim Henson's Muppets.
But at Marvel I got a call from Judy Price, who was in charge of children's programs at CBS. She said, "Margaret, I saw a picture of the Muppets dressed as babies in a dream sequence from The Muppets Take Manhattan. What if you did something called Muppet Babies?"
I said, "That's a fabulous idea. Maybe Jim will accept that." The rest is history. That began a great relationship I had with Jim for the six years that I was at Marvel.
Q: Did you develop many Marvel properties during your time there?
A: When I got to Marvel, I tried to sell X-Men, a more authentic Spider-Man and The Avengers. I wasn't successful.
We sold Muppet Babies and we developed and produced the original My Little Pony, G.I. Joe: A Real American Hero, Transformers, and a lot of shows for Hasbro — they were a great client. During my years at Marvel, we were great producers, but not of Marvel properties. I felt sort of like a failure.
Having said that, I'm very proud of the work we did. Stan Lee worked for me! When I got to Marvel, I took him to lunch and said, "Stan, I know on paper I'm your boss, but I'm not really. If anything, I'm honored to be your partner."
He said, "Maggie, you can be my boss any day of the week. I only have one rule and if you follow this, we're going to get along famously. When we go to lunch and I order dessert, don't ever ask to eat any of my dessert."
Later, when we'd go to lunch with clients, he'd always order dessert, and the network executives — ready with their spoons — would start to say, "Stan…." I'd say, "No, you can't have any of Stan's dessert." That was Stan's rule.
Q: Did you work closely with him on projects?
A: When I was doing G.I. Joe and Transformers, we were using an animation studio in Japan called Toei. The head of their live-action studio, Mr. Watanabe, knew Stan and admired him. He called him and said, "I've got a show that we've been doing and it's very successful in Japan.
You and Margaret might be interested in doing it for the United States."
So Stan walked into my office one day with a videocassette and said, "Maggie, I think I've found a hit for us. Take a look." It was all in Japanese. Stan said, "But wasn't it funny?" I said, "Well, as a matter of fact, it was. It was pretty crazy."
He said, "We can get the rights. Why don't we do something with it?"
I said, "Okay, I'll authorize $25,000. Let's cut a presentation tape, add U.S. voices and create a story. We'll go and present it."
So Stan and I pitched it to all three networks, and we were resoundingly sent on our way. Stan called Mr. Watanabe and said, "I'm sorry, we haven't been successful. We'll relinquish the rights."
Q: But that wasn't the end of it….
A: No. Several years later, when I was running Fox Kids, I was in the office of Haim Saban [then primarily an independent producer of animation] and I needed a morning show. I said, "I need something that's funny, but with action. I want something different."
He raced out, came back with a videocassette and said, "This might be what you're looking for." I put the cassette on, and it was the exact same footage that Stan had shown me — and it was the footage that we ultimately created Power Rangers out of. It was a huge hit, although nobody believed in it initially.
I believed in it. Haim believed in it. Haim's wife, Cheryl, believed in it. I don't think there were very many other people who believed in it, and certainly my bosses at Fox didn't believe in it.
Q: But they let you do it.
A: Well, there's a story behind that. Jamie Kellner, who was president of the Fox network (Fox Kids, where I worked, was a wholly owned subsidiary), wouldn't let me greenlight Power Rangers. He thought it was terrible. But he said, "I'll make a deal with you. Shoot a pilot and test it. If it tests well, I'll let you do it. I'll give you $100,000." That isn't much money for a pilot.
I called Haim and explained the situation. He said, "I'll put in another hundred thousand." He mortgaged his house for that.
So we made 17 minutes, not even a full pilot, and we tested it. I watched the kids behind the glass at the test and, of course, the little boys went crazy. But that's not when I knew it would be a hit. I knew it would be a hit when one little girl said, "I love the Pink Ranger," and another girl said, "Well, I like the Yellow Ranger," and the first girl said, "Well, I like both of them because they kick butt." I said, "It's a hit." Done.
I went to Haim and said, "I can order the show, but I can only pay $15,000 an episode."
He said, "What?"
I said, "Sorry, and I want a piece of the merchandising for the company." And Haim stepped up, to his credit.
Q: There are strong female characters in both Power Rangers and X-Men. Was that an active effort, to introduce those kinds of characters?
A: Absolutely. Part of my quest is to prove that little girls liked action/adventure as much as boys. Girls don't necessarily buy action figures, as boys do. They don't play like boys. But from a story perspective, girls like action, suspense, mysteries and special effects.
When Wonder Woman came out and was a hit, nobody could have been more gratified than yours truly. Because it proved exactly what I had been saying for years. At least 40 percent of the audience for Power Rangers were girls. X-Men was the same.
Q: What's the best advice you received about working in television?
A: The one that stands out was from the lawyer at Marvel Comics, Joe Calamari. I shared with him, "Oh my God, I'm becoming president–CEO of this company. What should I do?"
He said, "Listen, Margaret, everybody knows that you work well with creative people, but you need to learn the business. Your first couple weeks here, go in every day and ask to see every check that's coming in and every check that's written. You'll understand where the money comes from and how it's spent. You'll start to understand the business."
So I did that, and it was very helpful. When I looked at those checks, I learned that all the meaningful money was coming in from merchandising. So that was good advice. Now I say to people, "No matter how creative you are, get an understanding of the business. You'll be prepared for the decisions that have to be made and the decisions that will affect you."
Q: What advice would you give an aspiring television executive?
A: No job is too small. I am so lucky that I started as a clerk-typist at ABC. By starting there and working my way up, I learned a lot.
I often tell people, "If you have a choice between the bottom job and a low management job when you're first starting, take the bottom job because you won't learn as much in the management job."
I also tell students, "If you're not curious, you're not going to learn. And if you're not enthusiastic, you won't be noticed." If you're not naturally enthusiastic, pretend to be. It's very infectious.
This article originally appeared in emmy magazine, issue No. 8, 2019