Kings of syndicated TV pitching new shows
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NEW ORLEANS (CNN) -- It's the place where new shows make their first steps to the TV airwaves. It's called the NATPE (National Association of Television Program Executives), where an endless stream of pilot programs are pitched to local stations from all over the country.
At NATPE, the producers and stars of many of the shows you see on TV sell those shows to your local stations. This year it was held in New Orleans, and it was attended by some industry heavyweights, from Martin Short to Jerry Springer and David Hasselhoff.
This year, a lot of the new models are retreads of old ones, along with the odd new show. For instance, one game show called "Dreammaker" -- hosted by Richard Simmons -- allows winners to have their wishes fulfilled by a fairy godfather.
"That's what we need going into the millennium," says Simmons. "We need some positive, happy stuff."
In the midst of this empire of entertainment and excess are the two "Kings" of syndication: Roger and Michael King, the billionaire brothers who've sold some of TV's most popular programs.
"Roger King is, without a doubt, the greatest salesman in the history of anything," says television producer Merv Griffin. "And I don't ever limit him just to television. He could sell you anything."
Griffin ought to know. He created "Wheel of Fortune," and in 1983, after only moderate success as a daytime NBC show, Merv sold a nighttime version of the program to King World; 16 years later, it's the top syndicated show in America, and a big hit in 57 other countries, with a Vanna wannabe turning the letters in every one.
"We had a great show in 'Wheel,' obviously," says Michael King. "And when we placed it in the right time periods, it didn't just become the number-one show, it became the number-one show in the history of television."
Next, they snapped up the rights to another one of Griffin's fading game shows -- "Jeopardy" -- and turned it around.
"The success of those two shows, ratings-wise and monetarily, are mind-boggling," says Griffin. "I mean, each show has got to have brought in over a couple of billion dollars each in revenues."
But the Kings' ransom came in 1986, when they went looking for someone to compete with daytime TV's top talk show, "Donahue." At his Waterside home in Florida, Roger King recalled clueing in to Oprah.
"She was on 'A.M. Chicago,' so I went in and I saw the show. And I saw her, and I saw this tremendous talent. I mean, she jumped right through that set and talked to people," says Roger King.
To date, "Oprah" has been worth over $2 billion to King World. "Oprah" is a prime example of the Kings' uncanny nose for a hit -- which they combine effectively with their take-no-prisoners way of selling shows.
Former ABC executive Ob Weston said that seeing Roger King pitch a show is like watching an approaching storm.
"You would be sitting in an office, and you'd be aware that there was a tornado at one side of the room, it happened to have a human figure, and it was out of Roger," Weston recalls. "And eventually it would lift the program manager and the station manager off their seats, place them back down so rapidly that they didn't even know that it happened, and it would move on. And at the end of the time, there would be a signature on the contract."
"Knowledge is king, and if you're knowledgeable about a market, the general manager listens to you, and that really is what convinces them to stay with my television shows," says Roger King.
Sharp instincts, and the clout earned with hit shows: Those are the things that the King brothers bring to NATPE every year. But syndication is a tough business, and if you talk to some of their competitors, they'll tell you that the brothers have succeeded by being bullies.
"We do the same thing that they do, except when we do it, we're bad, we're monsters, we're bullies," says Roger King. "When they do it, they're good businessmen. I always found that fascinating."
Instead, the brothers say they were brought up to be good salesmen. And they've come a long way together since the early '60s.
Michael King says he and his brother learned their skills from their father.
"This man, literally, could sell anything," he says. "And he used to say, 'I'd like to have three things when I die.' He said, 'One was a scotch and water in one hand, a contract in the other, looking at a pretty blonde, or a pretty girl.'"
Their father, it turns out, died while on the road trying to sell "The Little Rascals."
The brothers took over, and then came Vanna, and Oprah, and moolah -- lots of it.
"It was pretty heady, you know, it really was," says Michael King. "It was scary. You have to learn how to deal with money. And Roger didn't learn as well as I did.
To say the least. By the mid-'80s, Roger's use of drugs and booze gave him a reputation for bad behavior that led him into rehab.
"It's happened for a long time to a lot of very intelligent people, and I don't want to dwell on it," says Roger King. "But it's something I learned and, quite frankly, I'm happy I went through.
"You don't learn as much from success as you do from failure. I'm not proud of some of the behavior I had in the past, but it was something that helped me change and become a better person. And I have a lot to be thankful for. So I'm blessed. I'm very blessed."
Indeed: King World recently locked up deals to keep "Wheel" and "Jeopardy" through 2005. They've already got "Oprah" through 2002. And that just adds to a company whose revenues are estimated to be nearly $3 billion. At last year's NATPE, they pitched a talk show with Roseanne, which hasn't done as well as expected, and a new "Hollywood Squares" with Whoopi Goldberg, a certified hit.
This year, the Kings have been selling a talk show hosted by Martin Short. Also in development: a new TV series of "The Little Rascals," the same show their father peddled all those years ago.
"He always said King World would take us to the top of the world, and it did," says Michael King. "And that's what King World is: a real, true, American story. Literally, a true, American family story that stuck together, worked hard together, through a very, very winding road, to this."
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