Lin Bolen, Energetic Executive at NBC Who Broke a Glass Ceiling, Dies at 76
Posted February 4, 2018 7:55 p.m. EST
Lin Bolen, who as the executive in charge of NBC’s daytime programming in the early 1970s was the highest-ranking woman in television, died Jan. 18 in Santa Monica, California. Most online sources put her age at 76.
Her friend Lisa Demberg confirmed the death. The cause was not specified.
Bolen was just 31 in 1972 when she was named director of daytime programs at NBC, putting her in charge of the network’s collection of soap operas and game shows. A year later she was given the title vice president for daytime programs — “the highest position a woman has so far achieved in network programming,” The New York Times reported.
In that job, which she held until forming her own production company in 1976, she energized the network’s game shows and expanded half-hour soaps to an hour. By 1975, NBC’s daytime ratings surpassed both CBS and ABC for the first time in a dozen years.
Accounts vary as to whether Bolen was the inspiration for Diana Christensen, the do-anything-for-ratings network executive played by Faye Dunaway in the 1976 film “Network,” written by Paddy Chayefsky. Bolen herself was somewhat equivocal.
“I don’t think he patterned the character after me,” she told The Washington Post in 1978. But, she added, “I certainly was a very prominent network executive at the time he created that character.”
Although sources differ on the date, by most accounts Bolen was born March 21, 1941, in Benton, Illinois. Her father was a union organizer for the United Mine Workers. She went to a finishing school in St. Louis, then studied advertising at City College of New York but did not graduate. (“I don’t think a degree is very important,” she told The Times in 1972.)
Instead she took a job with a company that made commercials. A 1975 article in Newsweek described her career path.
“Bolen spent four years grinding out TV commercials in New York before striking out for Hollywood, where she developed more than 30 pilots for Metromedia Producers Corp.,” the article said. “Disgruntled over her ‘limited visibility,’ she hooked up with NBC as a show doctor for the ailing ‘McMillan and Wife’ — and quickly brought her patient healthy ratings. In 1972, after only six months with the network, Bolen wangled an interview for the post of daytime director, which had suddenly become vacant.”
When an NBC executive asked her why she should get the job, she pointed out that daytime TV viewers were overwhelmingly female.
“I’m a woman, and I understand that audience,” she said.
A 1975 article in The Times said the resurgent feminism of the early 1970s also helped push her to the top ranks.
“She was wished on NBC by the women’s movement,” the article said. “When the network was under pressure to integrate its all-male cadre, NBC reached out for a female executive, and there — in the right place, at the right time — was Lin Bolen.”
The significance of her appointment was not lost on her.
“I don’t think it’s such a great accomplishment for someone my age,” she told The Times, “but it probably is for someone of my sex.”
She extended soaps like “Days of Our Lives” and “Another World” to an hour from 30 minutes to allow for more complex plots, a gamble that paid off. And she jazzed up the game show landscape with good-looking hosts and livelier game play, a look that came to be called “the Bolen style.” She ended the long-running shows “Jeopardy” and “Concentration” and put on “Wheel of Fortune,” which became a hit.
“When I came to the network,” she said, “a game show was celebrities sitting behind desks pushing buzzers. I felt the shows needed more fantasy and excitement.”
She pushed through the changes with brash confidence.
“Stick-thin and ever on the move, the single Ms. Bolen sometimes comes across like a Cosmopolitan Girl on uppers,” Newsweek wrote, “a persona that her less successful colleagues find hard to swallow” — because they had to work all the harder to match her energy. Bolen was unapologetic.
“People say I’m aggressive because I am aggressive,” she said.
One of those good-looking hosts Bolen turned to when she spiced up the game show lineup was Jim MacKrell, whom she brought in to host “Celebrity Sweepstakes,” introduced in 1974, and who became a friend. In a telephone interview, MacKrell confirmed the accuracy of one descriptive word that often turned up in articles about Bolen: chutzpah.
“That she had in spades,” he said. As for the “Network” character, Newsweek once reported that “Chayefsky was spotted snooping around the network’s offices” while he was developing the script. Yet Chayefsky, who died in 1981, once told an interviewer, “I wouldn’t know Lin Bolen if she were sitting here right now.”
Whether the connection between the harsh fictional character and the only top-level female TV executive at the time was real or imagined, Bolen felt the shadow strongly enough that in 1978, after she had left NBC, she made a TV series that she described as “my answer to ‘Network.'” It was called “W.E.B.” and was about a fictional TV network. Critics savaged it, and it lasted only a few episodes.
Bolen’s production company, Lin Bolen Productions, made several TV movies, the most successful of which was “Christmas Miracle in Caufield, U.S.A.” (also known as “The Christmas Coal Mine Miracle”), a 1977 film about a real-life mining disaster.
In 1983, Bolen married the director Paul Wendkos. He died in 2009. She is survived by a stepson, Jordan Wendkos; a brother, Tom; and a sister, Marilyn Wibbenmeyer.
Demberg, a former producer, said that although many younger women in television today might not have heard of Bolen, “for a long time women were very aware of her as a trailblazer.”