Alumni Spotlight: Q&A with Karen Seminara of Nickelodeon

April 9, 2018

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Karen Seminara

Karen Seminara (McIntire ’94) has been working at the crossroads of finance and media ever since her first accounting position with Deloitte, when she was assigned to The New York Times Company. The Nickelodeon CFO found an instant connection with the industry and its pop culture relevance and has stayed connected to it throughout her career.

After that early introduction to media, she secured her CPA license and was led by a desire “to transition to a deeper level of business partnership and be in closer proximity to day-to-day business-decision making,” Seminara says. Taking a position with NBC, then a division of General Electric, she participated in GE’s two-year Experienced Financial Leadership Program and attended NYU’s Stern School of Business part time to earn her M.B.A. Seminara then held an impressive succession of finance positions of increasing responsibility across NBC’s businesses over the course of 14 years. After time with MSNBC, CNBC, and more, she spent her final three years with the company as CFO of the Bravo network, before NBC Universal was acquired by Comcast in 2011.

“Soon after the Comcast acquisition, Nickelodeon reached out to me about becoming the CFO for such a renowned and respected media brand, which I was thrilled to accept. It was a larger P&L than those I had previously managed, and it meant leading a larger team,” she says. “Nickelodeon also had a robust consumer products business as well as an owned animation studio. It was a really exciting career growth opportunity.” Having since expanded her leadership roles at Nickelodeon, Seminara now oversees Production Management and Consumer Products Operations for the Viacom-owned network.

Seminara, who will be a guest speaker with author Roben Farzad at the Tom Tom Founders Festival Summit event, “The Edge of Entertainment,” Friday, April 13, chatted with us in advance of her appearance at the entrepreneurial gathering about the evolution of her industry, her McIntire experience, and balancing priorities.

You’ve held executive roles in finance with entertainment networks for years. How have ongoing changes in the way people consume entertainment challenged your recent experience as CFO of Nickelodeon? How are things different for you than they were when you started?
The level of change in media and entertainment is at unprecedented levels, driven both by technological advances and by consolidation as traditional media companies must achieve scale to remain competitive. Nickelodeon has been a trusted brand for kids and families for almost 40 years, but these industry changes mean we must manage our traditional content business to preserve margins, and our growth must come from businesses adjacent to our core (e.g., Consumer Products, Live Experiences) and from expansion to new platforms.

When I first started in media, cable was a fast-growing space, and Nielsen was the measurement “currency” on which to transact ad sales. This meant that media companies enjoyed years of growth in the two primary revenue streams: ad revenue (from the sale of commercials in content) and distribution revenue (subscriber fees paid by cable companies). Fast forward to 2018. Viewership is fragmented among hundreds of linear channels, and the growth of digital, mobile, and SVOD (Netflix, Amazon, Hulu, etc.) content consumption means that the cable universe is under significant pressure.

Nickelodeon and its related channels and platforms drive a $4 billion global consumer product business, but how do you measure success for yourself?
Over my career, success has been an evolving measurement, but at its core, I measure success by hard work and the drive to continue to grow personally and professionally. Earlier in my career, success was measured by individual contributions. As I have grown in my career, success has evolved to be measured by my ability to develop talent, and to be a leader colleagues want to work with and work for, while delivering on business objectives. Most importantly, however, my success is defined by balancing my personal and professional commitments. I proudly worked a flex schedule for 14 years while my children (now 16 and 13) were younger. For four years, I worked three-day weeks, and then worked four-day weeks for the next 10 years. In fact, I joined Nickelodeon as CFO working a four-day-week schedule.

How did the Comm School prepare you for where you are today? Can you recall any professors, experiences, or classes that directly influenced you and the choices you made early on in your career?
UVA and the Comm School were incredible preparation for my career. In fact, I recently told my children that going to UVA was one of the top three decisions of my life to date. Group work is the most notable skill that impacts my career every day. Successful management teams are composed of diversity of thought, experience, and background. The Comm School prepared me well for this. In terms of classes and professors, I fondly recall management classes taught by Professor James Dowd and Professor Neil Snyder. “Corporate Finance” taught by Professor Michael Atchison is another I remember well; I was thrilled to walk the halls of McIntire last month and see his nameplate outside his office door.

What might a current McIntire student learn from you and your career journey that they might not have been made aware of yet?
View your career as an opportunity to expand your toolkit. What I mean is that you have your “utility tools”—your “hammer” or “screwdriver”—which serve as your foundation. For me, those utility tools are my accounting background, analytical skills, media expertise, demonstrated talent development, etc. Utility tools make you a qualified candidate for a role. However, equally important when evaluating a career opportunity is to consider the tools you will add to your toolkit. This may be the opportunity to manage staff, lead a larger team, or change industries or functions. With any new opportunity, you should balance leveraging the tools you already possess while adding new skills to your career toolkit.