Interview Date: 1999
Interview Location: Washington, DC
Interviewer: Ruth Hartman
Collection: WICT 20th Anniversary Collection Project
HARTMAN: Could you tell me how you initially became involved in the cable industry?
SPRUNT: About 19 years ago, I started off as a marketing manager in our distribution sales division, and at that time we were selling CNN and TBS, and I got here about six months after CNN launched, and in those days I literally was on the phone all day long dialing for subscribers. And so that’s how we did sales in those days, a lot of it over the phone calling small mom-and-pop cable systems.
HARTMAN: So you were calling operators?
SPRUNT: Calling cable operators. My first job. And I had a region, I had the southeast region which went as far west as Oklahoma, I think I had Texas and as far north as Kentucky and Virginia, so that kind of gives you a sense of my sales territory.
HARTMAN: And at the time your career began, what did you find most striking about the industry?
SPRUNT: Entrepreneurial risk taking, unchartered waters, hard driving, hard working, very much not conventional at all, and I also think that’s why women have done so well. Did that answer your question?
HARTMAN: Yeah, definitely. The other question is a lot of the women I have been talking to said that it was easier for them to break into the business during those times. Would you agree with that?
SPRUNT: Absolutely. Because it was a new industry, you didn’t have a lot of the stereotypes or the caste system that might have already probably existed say like in the legal community or the political community or banking because those are very old traditional businesses, and this wasn’t. And so women had an opportunity, just like men, just like minorities, to come in and prove yourself. And I think for the most part, talent is recognized and rewarded in this industry.
HARTMAN: What do you think were the elements that led to your personal success?
SPRUNT: Well, I think not only the industry, but particularly our broadcasting had a culture that again, it just allowed me to first show them what I had, show them what I could do, and I wasn’t stereotyped here as a young woman, which I was at the time. I was working shoulder to shoulder, side by side with men a lot older than me, and a lot of men my same age. So I think Ted didn’t care who it was doing the work just as long as it got done and got done very well, so I think that’s why I thrived at Turner Broadcasting. And the other part of that, and this is sort of personal for me, I got out of college and thought I would work a couple of years and get married, and that’s just the way I was programmed, the way I was raised, and got in this job and it was a real revelation for me that I could actually do well in business, that a career was exciting to me, and that I could do just as good a job as a man, if not better. (Laughter).
HARTMAN: That’s good to hear. Do you remember when that moment was when you realized, you know what? I can do this?
SPRUNT: I do. I do remember. I don’t know how long I’d been here, maybe it was two years, three years, and I would go every year to CTAM which was an annual marketing convention, and I remember thinking oh, these men sitting up on these panels, these marketing geniuses were so smart and I could never do what they do, I would never be smart enough to ever sit up there on a panel and say the brilliant things that they were saying, and so that was about the first couple of years I thought that. Then about the fourth or the fifth year I remember thinking I’m as smart as they are. I can sit up and say and come across as confident and intelligent as they do. And I remember it was a real moment for me. It was about four or five years into my job.
HARTMAN: Did you have any mentoring along the way?
SPRUNT: No. No, there was no formal mentoring, but there were a couple of men whose style I admired and it’s kind of interesting, he is now my boss today, Terry McGuirk. I admired his style. He was fair, he was even handed, he didn’t throw his weight around, I thought he had his ego in check, and he’s now the chairman of the company, so I think I picked a pretty good person to sort of draft in behind and to see his style be successful.
HARTMAN: Has your style changed over the years in terms of management?
SPRUNT: I’m sure it has, I hope it has. I hope I’m a better manager today than I was 19 years ago. I hope it has. I hope I’m better, a lot better. I’d better be.
HARTMAN: I’m sure you’re better. Have you changed your approach at all do you think?
SPRUNT: Absolutely. I mean of course you do. I’ve been in this business almost 20 years, and I’m 20 years older today than I was when I started so, and I think also with age and with experience comes confidence, and I am a lot more confident than I am now. And that’s not to say I didn’t make mistakes because I did and I have and I’m sure I will make mistakes going forward, but I like my style, I’m comfortable with my management and leadership style.
HARTMAN: Can you talk about the components of your leadership style?
SPRUNT: Yes, I have an ability to have a vision. It can be a vision for I think what someone’s potential can be, I don’t care if it’s somebody in the mail room or an assistant, I think I can see beyond what they can see of themselves, that’s on kind of a micro level; and then I also have the ability and a talent to take divisions whose functions may not be as dynamic or useful to the corporation as they could or should be, I have a history of taking divisions, and re-purposing divisions. I think that’s the kindest way to say it. And then I think I also recognize talent. I’ve hired smart people, I’ve promoted smart people, I don’t micro manage, but give them enough latitude and leeway and direction and then let them do it.
HARTMAN: That sounds really good. That sounds like its worked for you definitely.
SPRUNT: It has. And if you want to know the truth, I have functions reporting to me that I couldn’t do if I had to go in and actually do human resources and actually go in and pitch an original movie to the press. I can’t do that, but I know what the function needs to do. I hire smart people who can actually execute ideas.
HARTMAN: Well, it sounds like you’ve probably mentored a lot of people along the way.
SPRUNT: I’ve been told that. I have been told that.
HARTMAN: Do you give like young people any advice when they come to the business?
SPRUNT: Well there are a couple of things that I did do here on a formal basis, and as you know, a lot of mentoring, particularly in this company, is done informally. I am formally mentoring two young women right now. I have informally mentored a lot, but what we also did was start something a year ago called Turner Women Today, and it’s focused on women in our company at mid-management level, because we find that at that level you begin to get discouraged. When you first get into Turner Broadcasting, you’re the kid in the candy store, and then when you get to be around the director level is when you get discouraged, so we started a formal program, we meet every other month, and right now we have so many fabulous executive females at Turner that we feature them. We may at some point down the road bring outside women in, but right now we found that our middle management females want to hear from other senior executives in the company. How did you do it, how did you get there, what are the lessons learned, are there any short cuts, how do you balance family and work, so we actually address those in these meetings every other month.
HARTMAN: That sounds like a really great program. Something we might want to feature in our newsletter or something.
SPRUNT: Oh, I wish you would. It’s so easy, it doesn’t cost anything. All companies should be doing this. It’s so easy. We give them coffee and donuts and we meet at 8:00 in the morning. Actually it starts at 7:30. So it doesn’t even cut into the work time. Starts at 7:30, the speaker starts at 8:00 and it’s over by 9:00.
HARTMAN: What do you see as some young women’s concerns in these forums? Do they get a chance to really talk about their careers and the direction or their careers?
SPRUNT: Well one of the things that we do is we break the groups up into tables of 10, and so we want other women in the company to meet each other at their own level. We find that a lot of conversation and discussion goes on at those tables. You might have the big fancy executive sitting up at the front talking for 20 minutes, but then at the tables, they get into their own discussions which I think is where there’s some real substance in those conversations. Does that make sense to you?
HARTMAN: Yeah, definitely. Definitely. I’m just going to ask you now a little bit about your professional accomplishments and looking over the course of your career, are there a few things that you’re especially proud of in terms of professional achievement?
SPRUNT: Well since we’re talking about women, I mean I can do that and I will, but I will tell you several things that I’m particularly proud of is our child care center. It’s called Turner Second Generation, and the company allowed me to research it, I mean this was a lot of other people, but they allowed me to lead the initiative, research it, get data from mothers and fathers in the company, go out and look at what the cost would be, the benefits, the downsides. Anyway, to cut to the chase we now have our own day care center on site. It’s great. We have about 125 children there and it’s really fantastic. So I’m real proud of that. I’m also proud of Turner Women’s Day. And then I just think what the company allows me to do in taking some divisions that I didn’t really have a whole lot of experience in doing, but I felt like I knew how to improve their functionality, their worth, value, benefit to the company. And that ranges from public relations to inside media departments to human resources, and I created a new division two years ago called Corporate Affairs. These were functions we didn’t have. Internal communications, community outreach and philanthropy. And, also I forgot about this, we have swept under that area a clean commute program. But that tells you a lot about this company. They let me do this stuff.
HARTMAN: Do you think that your situation is unique, or do you think the industry has been good to women overall?
SPRUNT: I think that Turner Broadcasting is a unique company. I’ve never worked anywhere else, so it’s hard for me to comment on it. But I will say that I think Turner Broadcasting is an incredible organization.
HARTMAN: Are you happy with the progress overall that women have made in the industry?
SPRUNT: Yes, I am. And can it be better? Absolutely. But if you think about where women have started, it’s really only been in the last 50 years, maybe 75 years, where women have actually got the right to vote, and now in the work place in a very powerful and dynamic way. So if we’ve made this much progress is 75 years, think about where we’ll be in the next 75. Do we need to make more progress? Yes. Yes. Absolutely. I mean the work is not done yet. It will be done when we’re not having interviews like this, it’s not an issue.
HARTMAN: Well you probably know how demanding the industry is, and I know a lot of young folks today are concerned about balancing personal and professional life. Have you achieved a formula for balance or is this something that you have any advice on for young kids?
SPRUNT: Well, I have not achieved that balance, but I will tell you, I don’t have children either. And even having said that, my life is not balanced. I think that when a woman decides to have a family, or a father for that matter decides to have a family, they need to sit down together, think long and hard about one of the most important decisions they’ll ever make. Every woman and father, they have to answer that for themselves. But I always say don’t put your child second. However that may translate into a woman’s life or a father’s life. This is a shared issue.
HARTMAN: Do you have interests outside of work then?
SPRUNT: I do. I like to garden and I like to travel, and I am a runner.
HARTMAN: Has that helped, exercising?
SPRUNT: Yes, absolutely.
HARTMAN: Well, this is a difficult question, but I was wondering whether or not you have any predictions for the industry, where you see it going in the next five or ten years.
SPRUNT: Now you mean in terms of an industry or in terms of women?
HARTMAN: Just overall the industry. Or if you prefer to answer the question about women, that’s fine too.
SPRUNT: Well you know, my predictions aren’t anything, there will be more consolidation. But I do believe that with more channels becoming available, it will put more pressure on great creative, more pressure for us to come up with dynamic programming, breakthrough programming, unique programming, and the real winners will be those ideas, those networks that really capture the attention and the imagination of the viewer. And I do believe that’s going to be a real crossroads for the industry.