Susan Lyne has had a long career in media, commerce and consumer products. She has held leadership positions at companies of all sizes and stages, from startups to public companies, often during periods of internal or external change.
Began career in journalism with a San Francisco alternative weekly, City, c. 1970; moved on to the Village Voice, and rose to managing editor, 1978; vice president, IPC, 1982-86; founding editor of Premiere magazine, 1987; joined Walt Disney Pictures & Television as executive vice-president, 1996; with ABC Entertainment after 1998, first put in charge of movies and miniseries, and as president, 2002-04; joined board of Martha Stewart Living Omnimedia, June, 2004; named chief executive officer of Martha Stewart Living Omnimedia, November, 2004.
Just a few months after being ousted from her post as president of the ABC television network’s entertainment division, Susan Lyne became the newest chief executive officer of Martha Stewart Living Omnimedia. The challenges Lyne faced when she took over the once-thriving lifestyle and media conglomerate were both numerous and novel, and nowhere in Lyne’s long and impressive resume had
her duties included visiting the company founder at Camp Cupcake, the minimum-security prison where Martha Stewart was serving a five-month jail sentence.
Born in 1950, Lyne grew up in a traditional Irish-Catholic family in Boston. Eager for a change of scenery, she spent her college years at a hotbed of 1960s West-Coast radicalism, the Berkeley campus of the University of California. She abandoned her political-science studies, however, when she was hired at a San Francisco alternative weekly, City, owned by future filmmaker Francis Ford Coppola. From there, Lyne moved on to a post at the nation’s top alternative newspaper, New York’s Village Voice, where she served as managing editor from 1978 to 1982.
Lyne’s first foray into the entertainment business came when the Voice did a story on a murdered Playboy centerfold, Dorothy Stratten, and the article won a Pulitzer Prize for the paper. It also led to a movie deal, and Lyne eventually signed on with a production company owned by Jane Fonda, IPC, where her job entailed looking for new film projects based on true-life stories. Lyne spent the years between 1982 and 1986 as an IPC company vice president, and in 1987 ventured back into journalism full-scale with the launch of Premiere, a much-lauded entertainment-industry periodical. She spent several years as its editor, until Walt Disney Pictures & Television hired her in 1996 as an executive vice-president. In that capacity, Lyne helped bring some impressive feature films to the big screen, including the 2003 story of a slain Irish journalist, Veronica Guerin.
Lyne moved over to the ABC network, which was a Disney company, and its entertainment division in 1998. She presided over ABC TV‘s movies and miniseries, and brought such notable projects as Tuesdays with Morrie and Life with Judy Garland to fruition. Her track record paved the way for her elevation to the presidency of ABC Entertainment in early 2002, which gave her responsibility for nearly all of its all prime-time programming. At the time, however, ABC’s line-up was in terrible shape, and tied with the FOX network for third place in overall ratings. Lyne’s three predecessors on the job had not lasted long, and industry gossip claimed that Disney executives liked to meddle. For the past few years, ABC had been determined to cull a younger, edgier audience, but had failed miserably. Its sole success story had been the quiz show Who Wants to Be a Millionaire —which pulled in huge ratings at first, but then other ABC executives decided to put in on the air four nights a week, and viewers quickly lost interest.
Lyne believed that family-friendly fare was ABC’s best bet for maintaining an audience. Sitcoms like 8 Simple Rules for Dating My Teenage Daughter and George Lopez were both greenlighted by her for the fall 2002 season, and proved a hit with critics and viewers. Lyne was also determined to decrease reliance on reality-television programming, but a year after she took the job, in the February 2003 sweeps period, ABC foisted six reality shows on viewers, nearly all of which tanked. Are You Hot? was a particularly notable failure, and even Lyne admitted in a Business Week interview with Ronald Grover, “I was embarrassed watching that. When it was pitched to us it sounded like fun. It was a little tongue-in-cheek. On some level it was going to make fun of or comment on the whole beauty-pageant genre. In reality, once we watched it we were mortified.”
Despite Lyne’s best creative efforts, ABC continued to suffer ratings and thus advertising-revenue losses; in the spring of 2004 there was yet another management reshuffle, and she lost her seat. “I was surprised, but I understood,” she diplomatically told Broadcasting & Cable ‘s Jim Finkle when asked several months later about her reaction to being fired. “They felt they needed to make a larger change than they anticipated.” Somewhat ironically, two of the following season’s shows that Lyne had greenlighted, Desperate Housewives and Lost, went on to become two of the biggest hits of the year.
Lyne was invited to join the board of Martha Stewart Living Omnimedia in June of 2004, a troubled time for the once-mighty lifestyle and media empire. Stewart, its namesake and founder, had recently been convicted of lying to federal investigators about the sale of some stock in a biomedical company owned by her friend, and was facing prison time. Stewart no longer had a title at the company, but was still the majority shareholder. In November of 2004, with Stewart already serving her sentence at a Alderson, West Virginia, facility, the board replaced a longtime executive with Lyne as the new CEO.
Lyne faced a daunting array of challenges, as she had at ABC, but these were truly unique: Martha Stewart Living Omnimedia was charting unknown waters, with its founder and image-bearer in jail. The stock price had been plummeting, and the magazine’s advertisers had been decamping in droves. Still, its share price climbed a bit the day the announcement was made that Lyne was in charge, and she moved quickly to branch out and bolster revenue.
Lyne retreated from the spotlight some when Stewart was released in March of 2005. She likely helped engineer the company’s deal with the Sirius satellite radio network, which would launch a 24-hour Martha Stewart Living channel featuring lifestyle news and information. Lyne seemed to have more than a few similarities with her indefatigable boss. A former colleague from Premiere, Cyndi Stivers, toldAdvertising Age reporter Jon Fine that Lyne is “unflappable.” Stivers recounted about a pregnant Lyne, who drove “a bunch of the staff to a screening, dropped them off, and drove herself to the hospital and had the baby in the hallway or something. No one had any idea she was about to give birth.” When asked to verify the incident, Lyne said she had actually been in a taxi, and that she did actually make it into a delivery room, but just barely.