Deborah Barak, one of the most prominent, influential and beloved TV business executives of the past three decades, died today, Jan. 21, after a long battle with cancer. She was 65.
Barak’s passing comes just two years after she left CBS at the end of 2020. During her 35 years at the company, rising to President of Business Operations, she created deal templates and introduced business models that have since become industry standards. A skilled negotiator who was highly respected by her peers, Barak — known to all as Debby — led the network’s and studio’s highest-profile negotiations. She brokered a slew of mega talent and show deals while always keeping her cool under pressure in the most chaotic situations.
Behind the steely exterior, the unassuming and press-shy Barak had a great sense of humor. She also was a wonderful mentor to scores of industry professionals who now carry on her legacy.
“Debby was a mentor and dear friend to so many of us at CBS,” said David Stapf, President of CBS Studios and a longtime colleague and friend of Barak’s. “She was the person everyone turned to for counsel and guidance, both professionally and personally. You always left her office feeling a little bit smarter and emotionally stronger. There was no one who was more universally loved, admired, and respected at CBS and across our business.
“Debby was also that rare person who was equal parts intimidating, smart as hell and incredibly empathetic, which made her a unicorn,” Stapf added. “She was my partner, my best friend and someone who made me a better person.”
During her tenure at CBS, Barak helped set a business framework for the network to establish an in-house production arm and oversaw dealmaking for the studio, from the first original series for then-CBS Productions, including docuseries Rescue 911 and drama Touched By an Angel, to the expansive, 75-series slate of CBS Studios at the time of her departure.
In addition to her key role in introducing program ownership to CBS’ primetime, Barak helped establish a business blueprint and led dealmaking for the switch of CBS’ late-night real estate from leased to fully-owned. She negotiated the talent and production agreements for Late Show with Stephen Colbert and Late Late Show with James Corden, the first CBS’ late-night shows to be produced by CBS Studios.
Barak also helped create the business template for CBS’ model for summer original scripted series via lower network license fees and an in-season SVOD window. It was used for such series as Under The Dome, Extant, Zoo and BrainDead. In addition, she established the license fee structures for CBS All Access’ original series, such as Star Trek: Discovery.
Barak handled license renewals for the network’s series, including the high-profile renegotiations for The Big Bang Theory, Two And A Half Men and The Late Show With David Letterman, as well as long-term renewals for key franchise specials, including The Grammy Awards, The Kennedy Center Honors and the Academy Of Country Music Awards. In 2000, she drafted the original Survivor cast contract, which became a template for reality talent agreements. More recently, Barak negotiated CBS’ purchase of an interest in Kapital Entertainment, and a long-term distribution and co-production deal with Imagine Entertainment. She also represented CBS on the CW board and supervised the deal making for Paramount+ predecessor CBS All Access.
“Respected and admired across the entire media spectrum. Wise, tough, and fair minded to all. Her business savviness and sophisticated negotiating skills were matched by her humanity and decency,” said producer Nina Tassler, former longtime CBS programming executive who rose to Entertainment Chairman during her tenure. “Working together for over 20 years was one of the most rewarding experiences of my lifetime. Her sophisticated intellect along with a deep appreciation for artists distinguished Debby as world class; few possessed her myriad unique talents.
“Mentor and friend to so many during her stellar career, Debby was foundational to the network’s success,” Tassler continued. “Above all, her moral compass never wavered, treating everyone with grace and dignity.”
Barak joined CBS in 1985 as Broadcast Counsel in the Network’s West Coast law department. She climbed through the ranks to SVP, Business Planning and Special Projects, playing a key role in the negotiation of new media deals and co-production agreements; SVP, Business Affairs, CBS Entertainment; EVP, Business Affairs, CBS Network Television Entertainment Group; EVP, Business Operations, CBS Network Television Entertainment Group; and finally, President of Business Operations, a position she was named to in 2015.
When Barak announced her upcoming exit at the end of January 2020, she was looking to embark on a new chapter in her career with a focus on non-profit, an area she had been very involved in. She was on the board of Jewish Family Services, including a stint as Chair, and Adat Ari El school; she also was active with Unistream and the Israel Policy Forum, among others. Barak also was open to pursuing other opportunities, including serving on boards, and was planning to spend time with her grandchildren.
The pandemic disrupted her final year at CBS, and then the illness thwarted her many plans for the future.