The queens of media are falling fast

May 9, 2011, 10:54 PM UTC

L. to R.: OWN honchos Christina Norman, David Zaslav, Oprah Winfrey, Tom Freston, Lisa Erspamer

I was on stage with Jennifer Siebel Newsom, the producer and director of Miss Representation, on Friday just after the news broke that Christina Norman was out as CEO of Oprah Winfrey’s new TV network, OWN.

What an odd coincidence, since Newsom’s documentary explores the dearth of women in “clout positions” in the mainstream media. Newsom says that this number is 3%.

Clearly, it is getting worse.

The day before Norman, a former president of MTV, got the boot at OWN, MTV Networks CEO Judy McGrath unexpectedly quit Viacom — frustrated by a series of moves by her boss, Viacom CEO Philippe Daumon, to limit her creative license and authority over the company’s biggest and most profitable division.

The fall of McGrath and Norman follows the March ouster of Vivian Schiller from the top job at NPR and the April dismissal of Reader’s Digest CEO Mary Berner.

Meanwhile, the cast of media queens on Fortune‘s Most Powerful Women list is shrinking since Cathie Black left Hearst Magazines–only to struggle mightily and get discharged as New York City Schools chancellor. The other most powerful woman in print, Ann Moore, stepped down as chairman and CEO of Time Inc. , Fortune‘s parent, late last year.

Fortune‘s MPW list still includes media honchos such as Anne Sweeney, who heads Disney’s Media Networks, and Bonnie Hammer and Lauren Zalaznick at NBC Universal .

And if you consider Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg and Yahoo chief Carol Bartz media executives (I do), then women still do swagger in the media universe.

But the unexpected exits of Norman and McGrath constitute a serious bummer. These two women, who spent much of their careers working together at MTV Networks, were role models not only for each other but for a couple of generations of women on the way up.

Given OWN’s dire need for a terrific programmer to shape up the network, the rumor mill has McGrath as a potential successor to Norman. That’s not impossible (for Oprah, nothing is), but it’s very unlikely. Oprah tried to lure McGrath to OWN early on, before she met Norman, but McGrath is a die-hard New Yorker and didn’t want to move her family, including a teenage daughter now in high school, to Los Angeles. Now, with Jersey Shore on MTV, you have wonder if Oprah would hire the woman who gave us the gift of Snooki? For what it’s worth (a TV ratings bonanza), Oprah remains a McGrath fan, I’m told. But the notion that McGrath would move from a media behemoth — including MTV, VH1, Comedy Central and more — to troubled OWN is unrealistic. “There’s not a remote possibility that Judy will do it,” says a friend of McGrath.

For the time being — up to a year — OWN’s 50-50 owners, Oprah Winfrey and Discovery Communications , have installed Discovery COO Peter Liguori as interim chief. And the search for a new CEO will begin in earnest this fall, after Oprah wraps up her syndicated talk show, moves to California, and drills into OWN’s leadership dilemma. People close to OWN tell me that she and Discovery CEO David Zaslav would not rule out candidates she considered before hiring Norman. Besides McGrath, that cast includes Lifetime/History Channel boss Nancy Dubuc; Susan Lyne, who once co-headed ABC Entertainment and now chairs online retailer Gilt Groupe; and former VH1 boss John Sykes.

Nothing against Sykes and Liguori — they are guys who get it. But Oprah would be wise to choose a woman. Lisa Ling, whose Our America with Lisa Ling is one of OWN’s few hit shows, is featured in Miss Representation and says in the film: “No one is going to stand up for the interests of women except other women.”

Even more importantly as female clout in media falters, filmmaker Newsom notes, “You can’t be what you can’t see.” All the more reason for Oprah, as the true queen of media told me last fall, to embrace her “next act” as a businesswoman.