Stephanie Noonan Drachkovitch didn’t always know she wanted to be in television. But after interning for a local talk show, she knew it was her calling. Fast-forward to today, and Stephanie is the president and co-founder of 44 Blue Productions, an award-winning production company leading the field in unscripted and non-fiction TV with shows like Wahlburgers and Hollywood Medium with Tyler Henry.
Read on to hear how Stephanie moved up in Hollywood, her advice for women looking to work in television, and how she stays confident in a male-dominated industry.
Describe your career journey. How did you get to the position you’re at now?
My mom went to Northwestern’s Medill School of Journalism, was a voracious reader and talented writer, and inspired my love for magazines—between that and my infatuation with Mary Richards on the Mary Tyler Moore Show, I became a magazine journalism major at U of Oregon.
After interning through the Magazine Publishers Association one summer, I got an internship at the daily live talk show on the local ABC affiliate in Portland, Oregon, and that began my love affair with live television! I went from production assistant (my duties ranged from warming up the audience to running the teleprompter and gathering props for the weekly household hints segment) at KATU to associate producer at WPVI’s AM PHILADELPHIA to Executive Producer at WCAU, the CBS Owned and Operated station then in Philadelphia. I was their youngest EP at the time, doing a live daily issue-and-entertainment based talk show. Lots of decisions every day in the control room!
I then joined Telepictures in Los Angeles as a producer of a daily news magazine, then KRON in San Francisco to EP their live daily show. At that point my now-husband and I had started our own production company with the dream of producing our own shows. We lived in the Bay Area, and he was running it while I had the steady paycheck. I got offered a job as a studio executive at Disney in LA, so we decided to jump on it as an opportunity to move our fledgling company back to LA where we could return to the center of the entertainment industry. That led to a 13-year career as a studio exec, where I went from Director of Development at the Disney division that launched REGIS & KATHIE LEE (now LIVE WITH KELLY & RYAN), then moved to Vice President of Development at Group W Productions, Executive Vice President of Development at UK indie Pearson Television (now Fremantle), back to Disney as Senior Vice President of Development (we launched WHO WANTS TO BE A MILLIONAIRE during that period) and finally, Senior Vice President of Development at Warner Bros./Telepictures (we launched THE BACHELOR and ELLEN while I was there). After surviving five studio jobs and working for a new boss nearly every three years, my husband convinced me to jump out of the crazy studio world and return to 44 Blue in 2003. I’ve been with our company ever since!
What’s the best advice you’ve ever been given?
My dad taught me to go for it and “always leave it all on the field.” Never wonder “what if I’d only….?” My favorite advice to give to others: “You can’t win if you don’t play.” Which is just another way of saying you don’t get something unless you ask, so be fearless about reaching out, introducing yourself, asking for what you need—whatever form it takes. My other favorites: Everything leads to something. On time is late and early is on time. Always send a thank-you note.
What moment in your career are you most proud of?
Besides the sale of our company to Red Arrow Studios after three decades of hard work and wondering if we’d make payroll on Fridays, it would be our series MARRIED TO THE ARMY: ALASKA. As an Army brat whose mom raised three kids during the turbulence of the Vietnam War era, I was determined to tell the real-life stories of what military families were going through during the height of the war on terror in Iraq and Afghanistan. It took five years of trying to get access from the Department of Defense, but we finally got the “yes” to allow us to embed in the lives of real-life Army wives at Joint Base Elmendorf-Richardson in Anchorage, Alaska, ironically where my parents met. That led to our Gracie Award-winning MARRIED TO THE ARMY: ALASKA for Oprah Winfrey’s OWN Network in 2012.
What do you love most about working in unscripted and nonfiction television?
It’s introduced me to so many people from all walks of life, from around the country and the world—from Army wives in Alaska to content creators in India—it’s allowed me to tell stories of people and places whose stories have not been told. It’s such a rewarding genre because you are meeting the real people who are living real lives—not fictionalized where everything wraps up neatly in an hour because you can write it that way. When we tell the stories of real people, we become part of their lives. We are thankful that they trust us with their stories and invite us in. I treasure the relationships and the people I’ve been able to meet over the past three decades!
What advice do you have for women looking to become showrunners?
If you want to become a showrunner, you have to put yourself out there, say you want it, but also be willing to fail and accept responsibility for your mistakes and when you could’ve done better. You have to be willing to learn every day, from every show and every interaction. Each series is different and teaches you something new. It’s important to realize that showrunning is not just about being creative or being a visionary storyteller. It also takes strong leadership, communication, and organizational skills. Be open to new ideas and points of view. Read everything you can about how to inspire and lead. It will show on the screen!
44 Blue is about to head into its 35th year, how does your company and its content stay relevant and fresh after all these years?
Great question! We always try to look around us, as well as down the road as far as we can and ask ourselves what else we could be doing to push ourselves to try new things, explore new worlds, teach ourselves new skillsets. For example, last year we did our first SnapChat projects and brand commercials, and this year we’ve launched a podcast initiative and are doing short-form series for IMDB. We can’t be afraid to try new things that test our creative chops and business models.
How do you speak up and have confidence when in an industry that’s so male-dominated?
I’ve never been asked that—I guess I’ve never been intimidated by speaking up, and I’ve made sure to always push myself to speak up—maybe because I grew up as a military kid and my parents always encouraged me to speak up? But that said, I do still remember at one job not wanting to be taller than my boss (I’m 5’9”) and so I never wore heels. I guess I didn’t want him to feel intimated by me. Then one day I was like “forget that!” I should be able to be as tall as I want—who cares if he’s intimidated! And out came the heels haha! Sheryl Sandberg’s Lean In book is an insightful read into what we sometimes do to unintentionally hold ourselves back.
What’s next for you and 44 Blue?
I can hardly wait to see - we have an amazing team of people that inspire me every day when I walk in. Our new series Jailbirds just debuted on Netflix on May 10, our tenth and final season of Wahlburgers is currently airing on A&E, and we’re working on a new series with FOX called First Responders Live that premieres in June. We have a few more projects coming out this year - both on linear and some new initiatives in the digital space - that I can’t say too much about at the moment, but we’re incredibly excited. That’s why I love this business. Things change by the minute—the sky’s the limit!