Ladybrille Magazine is delighted to share with you, our readers, ourexclusive interview, with this Month’s Woman of the Month, Pearlena Igbokwe.Pearlena has served for almost two decades as Senior Vice President, Programming, for Showtime Networks. She is an example of a brilliant woman juggling so many hats and making it look easy. Enjoy.
“After emigrating to America from Nigeria at six, Pearlena Igbokwe watched TV incessantly to learn English. That studying paid off big as she has been involved with numerous projects since joining the premium programmer in 1994 after a stint at HBO.
During her Showtime tenure, Igbokwe has shepherded a number of telepics, as well as comedies Fat Actress, the TV adaptation of Barbershop, The Underground starring Damon Wayans, as well as the five-season run of drama Soul Food.
Igbokwe developed and supervised the Emmy-nominated and Peabody Award-winning drama Dexter, Edie Falco’s Nurse Jackie, Tracey Ullman’s State of the Union and LA LA Land.”
LADYBRILLEmag.com: Pearlena, we are long overdue for this interview. How are you?
Pearlena: I’m very well thank you.
LADYBRILLEmag.com: (That is great to hear. Let’s back track a bit). How was your mother’s day celebration?
Pearlena: It was wonderful. I have two young children and the day started with my son serving me breakfast in bed. Nothing could be better!
LADYBRILLEmag.com: (Awww. . . how sweet) Okay. Let’s rewind to the beginning for the benefit of our audience who do not know you. We will discuss Pearlena as Senior Vice President for Original Programming at Showtime Network later. But first, I want to discuss Pearlena the Nigerian girl living in Nigeria. What was your childhood like?
Pearlena: Well, my earliest memories are mostly of the Biafran War. I was a child then and didn’t really understand much of it but I do remember being attacked by bomber planes and having food airlifted into my village.
LADYBRILLEmag.com: (Whoa! I read the book Half of a Yellow Sun and my mother told me about her personal experiences during that time but wow!) I understand that you came to the USA at six years old. Why did your family move to the States?
Pearlena: Like most immigrants, we came for opportunity. I grew up in a village that didn’t have indoor plumbing or electricity until well into the 90’s.
LADYBRILLEmag.com: I found your childhood story particularly intriguing, especially the part about you learning English through watching television here in the USA. Nigeria is an English speaking country, at least English is its official language and has been for decades. How come you had to learn how to speak English through television shows, especially since you lived in the big city Lagos before moving to the States?
Pearlena: I was born in Lagos but grew up primarily in a small village and was just starting school when my family left so I knew only a little English. When I came to America, the teachers were concerned about my English enough to ask my parents not to speak our native Ibo to me any longer for fear that I would not learn how to speak English fast enough. That kind of thing would not be encouraged now but it was a different era.
LADYBRILLEmag.com: Indeed. I understand you moved to the States so the rest of your family could unite with your father. June is Father’s day celebration here in the States. What kind of a dad was your father?
Pearlena: My father came to the states first to prepare a way for the rest of us. Unfortunately, my parents separated soon after we got to America.
LADYBRILLEmag.com: Got it. Back to you moving to the States. What are some of the things that make you chuckle and laugh when you think about your transitionary period to the States?
Pearlena: When I first started school in New Jersey, I remember some children asking me if my family ate tables and chairs like Tarzan did! What are they teaching kids in schools these days?
LADYBRILLEmag.com: (Laughs)(Unbelievable) (Laughs agains) You made the adjustments and ultimately attended Yale University. I understand while at Yale is where you discovered your passion for television. Share a bit of that history with us . . .?
Pearlena: I got into the NBC Summer Associates Program while still an undergraduate at Yale and ended up working at 30 Rock for two summers during the Must See TV era. I never knew they actually paid people to work in the tv business. For such a young person, it was a very heady experience.
LADYBRILLEmag.com: You didn’t stop with a degree from Yale. You decided to obtain an MBA degree at Columbia University. Why did you think that was necessary at the time?
Pearlena: By then I knew that I wanted to be on the business side of entertainment and I believed that an MBA would ensure that more doors would be open to me.
LADYBRILLEmag.com: Share with us some of your career highlights at the network so far?
Pearlena: Developing Dexter and seeing fans embrace it worldwide has been really gratifying. I was also really fulfilled by the way Soul Food, another show I helped developed, was embraced by the African American audience. Both shows, at different times, have been Showtime’s top rated series.
LADYBRILLEmag.com: What are you most proud of with your work at Showtime?
Pearlena: My longevity (20 years) and being able to hold my head up about the shows I work on.
GETTING INTO PEARLENA’S WORK + DEFINING TELEVISION FROM PAST TO PRESENT
Ladybrillemag.com: Pearlena, I am really big in my interviews on having my audience walk away more enlightened about a subject and interviewees. So, let’s truly get into your work. Having worked in television since the 90s, can you speak on television as it was back in the 90s and what it is now in terms of the 21st century?
Pearlena: Frankly, I think television is trying to figure out what IT is in the 21st century. There are so many more networks and more ways to watch content, and avoid commercials and everyone is trying to figure out how to continue to be profitable in this business. There are so many more factors period.
Ladybrillemag.com: Shed some light on a network’s structure and programming?
Pearlena: Programming is but one arm of the company. It’s an important arm because it’s our primary product but we also have other arms such as Affiliate Sales force, Marketing and Advertising, Public Relations, Finance, Legal, not unlike other companies.
LADYBRILLEmag.com: As you know, distribution is a key part of the business of television. How has distribution changed within the past five years in television; especially given the digital revolution and the likes of Netflix?
Pearlena: You have a lot more options for getting your programming to the viewers but a more fractured business because of it.
LADYBRILLEmag.com: Very interesting. Let’s shift direction a bit. What is a typical day like for Pearlena?
Pearlena: There are no typical days but let’s just say I spend a lot of time on the phone and in meeting talking about creative ideas all day long.
LADYBRILLEmag.com: Name some of your favorite must read showbiz websites?
Pearlena: Hollywoodwiretap.com, Deadline.com, TMZ.com, Slate.com to name a few
PEARLENA ON FAMILY LIFE & WORK, DOING THE JUGGLE
LADYBRILLEmag.com: (Deadline and TMZ are must reads for me too). Needless to say, I have to ask you the question every Ladybrille woman, especially those in upper level executive positions married with children, want to know. You have a husband and two kids and you are an executive of a major television network. How do you do the juggle and make it work?
Pearlena: Not always well but I do the best I can. I also try not to feel guilty about asking for and getting help.
PEARLENA ON AFRICA’S TELEVISION AND FILM INDUSTRIES
LADYBRILLEmag.com: You have made an impact in the television industry here in the USA. Have you felt, at any point, the need to translate some of your skills , experience and industry connections to the motherland, particularly where you come from, Nigeria?
Pearlena: I know there is a growing Nollywood industry but I haven’t yet found a way to translate my skills.
LADYBRILLEmag.com: I recall interviewing Michael Ajakwe years ago. He is a writer who has written some television hit series in the past. One of the things he lamented on was the scarcity of black actors and television programs geared towards black audiences. I know you have probably heard many within the industry discuss his points. Can you speak on minorities, particularly blacks and Africans, in Hollywood’s television industry?”
Pearlena: The economics of television are such that it is geared towards the largest audiences possible. That’s how it makes money. I think what we need are more shows that depict a more diverse group of people. If it’s a good show and everyone can see themselves reflected in it, you are likely to have a bigger audience. Grey’s Anatomy is an example. That show reflects what a real hospital is likely to look like. I just don’t understand shows that are set in large urban cities where you never see anyone of color. How does that work?
LADYBRILLEmag.com: The UK has managed to launch a comedy show called “Meet the Adebanjos.” It is a story of that basically chronicles the immigrant story. In a nutshell, “it is a brand NEW revolutionary Family Sitcom about a British African Family living in the London. In a entertaining way it deals with how a larger than life Dad struggles to instill his old fashion African values in his British household.” They have very limited syndication in the UK. Only one network carries them from my understanding. But, they are syndicated across Africa and other parts of Europe.
Nevertheless, Do you see an African sitcom or television program of a similar type here in the USA in the nearest future? Is America ready for something like that?
Pearlena: I’m sad to say I haven’t heard of the UK show you mentioned and I don’t know how well it is doing. But America has had the example of The Cosby Show, a huge hit show about a Black family. What we all as tv viewers respond to is seeing an experience that we understand and can identify with. If something is universal enough, it doesn’t matter so much the color of the faces.
LADYBRILLEmag.com: I heard you want to own your own cable network someday. How amazing and truly inspiring. We’ve seen one woman own her own network, Oprah. Recently, we heard Oprah lost over $350million and OWN is not doing so well. What do you say to yourself and others that may think it cannot be done, especially by a woman of color?
Pearlena: I’ve never said I necessarily wanted to own a cable network but I do have aspirations to run one. As far as Oprah is concerned, I have the greatest respect and admiration for what she is trying to do with OWN. She is a trailblazer. I truly hope it turns out to be successful.
LADYBRILLEmag,com: I could go on with more questions because I have so much more I want to uncover about you. But I think we will have to do another interview at some point. For sake of brevity, let me wrap it up with some personal/philosophical questions. (Laughs)
LADYBRILLEmag.com: What keeps you awake at night?
Pearlena: Hopefully nothing. I need my rest!
LADYBRILLEmag.com: (Laughs) (You and me both.) What drives you?
Pearlena: The desire to do things better than the day before.
LADYBRILLEmag.com: What are the daily principles you live by?
Pearlena: Treat people the way I want to be treated, with respect.
LADYBRILLEmag.com: When was the last time you danced to some great music?
Pearlena: Wow. Might be longer than I care to remember!
LADYBRILLEmag.com: What do you want to be remembered most for?
Pearlena: Living an honorable life.
LADYBRILLEmag.com: Thank you so much for this interview. Thank you for making the time. I wish you continued success and thanks for inspiring us all with your tenacity and accomplishments.
Pearlena: Thank you for all your thoughtful questions.
-Interview by Uduak Oduok