The Sarnoffs: Great-Uncle Dave Would Be Proud

Power couples in the media world are nothing new, but among the new generation of media leaders the pairing of Richard and Ann Sarnoff has a unique old-generation pedigree. Richard's great-uncle was former RCA Chairman David Sarnoff, who pioneered the development of the first commercial radio station and became known as one of the architects of mass media. The Sarnoffs met in the fall of 1985 at Harvard Business School and today are helping to shape the future of publishing and bolster fledgling women's professional sports: he as an executive vice-president of Random House and she as the chief operating officer of the Women's National Basketball Assn.

In mostly a dealmaking and financial role at Random House, a unit of German media giant Bertelsmann, Richard, 45, has worked closely over the past decade with Chief Executive Peter W. Olson to help build the book publisher into a $2 billion-a-year business. He's also the only American executive at the company serving on Bertelsmann's supervisory board, one of its two key governing bodies. Among his priorities is pushing the publisher into the digital arena: His latest deal on Feb. 17 involved Random House Ventures, a tech investment unit, buying a minority stake in wireless-content distributor VOCEL.

Richard says he often thinks about his great-uncle's work in creating NBC, the first broadcast network to reach across the entire country. "Uncle Dave" would probably see today's media world "as an interesting return to the beginnings of electronic media," says Richard, who remembers being awestruck visiting his great-uncle's tech-equipped Manhattan townhouse in the 1960s and seeing a painting slide back to reveal a TV set. And wireless broadband? "The first application of wireless transmission was point-to-point, ship-to-shore, rather than broadcast .... [He] might look at this narrowcasting phenomenon and think ship-to-shore is coming back."

As Richard advanced on the financial front, Ann, 42, moved up in marketing. At Nickelodeon, she was instrumental in the rollout of the hot-selling Rugrats and Blue's Clues merchandise and was later elevated to COO for sister units VH1 and Country Music Television, the first woman in that role at Viacom's (VIA ) MTV Networks. Now at the WNBA, where she oversees advertising, marketing, broadcasting, and merchandising, Ann says "it's a job and a cause." She was brought in a year ago to help breathe new life into the eight-year-old league, which has struggled with tepid TV ratings and building a larger fan following. Says NBA Commissioner David Stern: "We needed somebody with broad executive skills but also [who knew] consumer goods and brand management. We got her."

Having both husband and wife working in the insular media business in New York is sometimes tricky. Random House, for example, became a Nickelodeon licensee when Ann was there. Ann is also one of the subjects in a book Random House will be publishing, Ending the Cat Fight, about mothers who choose to work vs. those who don't. Richard says they just don't discuss negotiations on any of those deals. So is there competition between the two ambitious execs? "How could there not be? But it's healthy, and ultimately we know we are in each other's corner," says Richard.

The top priority, they say, is their 13-year-old daughter and 9-year-old son. When Ann travels, RIchard is at home -- and vice versa. They want their kids to take an interest in what they do. And they want them to recognize that when they turn on TV or radio or even boot up their PCs, the Sarnoff legacy is part of how it all came to be.

By Tom Lowry in New York

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