In Depth

In Their Own Words: Jamie Bennett

Investor in and adviser to small companies and the Buena Vista executive who launched “Live With Regis and Kathie Lee” in syndication in 1988

I met Regis in 1972, although he doesn’t remember it. There is no reason he should remember it. I was a young MBA type who worked for CBS in New York and I was sent to St. Louis to work on a project. Regis had this friend, Tom Battista, who was the general manager of the station in St. Louis and worked with him in San Diego earlier. Tom was producing a weekly talk show with Regis. He would fly Regis in from the West Coast. I attended one of the tapings of the show and thought he was remarkable, but not so remarkable that I did anything with those feelings.

Roll the clock forward eight years, and I’d moved to Los Angeles as the station manager of the CBS O&O, now KCBS-TV. I arrived married with a small baby. My wife had been the associate producer of “A.M. Chicago,” which later became “The Oprah Winfrey Show.” (At that time, all the ABC O&Os had an “A.M. Fill in the Blank” show.) We rent a little furnished house. I’m going off to Channel 2 every day. My wife doesn’t know anybody. The only person she feels any connection to in Los Angeles is Regis Philbin, because Regis Philbin, at the top of “A.M. Los Angeles,” did what Regis Philbin does on “Live With Regis and Kelly”: tell stories. The stories at that point were less celebrity-filled and they were more charming and provincial. Since Regis lived only a few blocks from where we were renting our house, the issues of his daily living were the things that were the meat and potatoes of our house. I would come home and Carolyn would tell me these charming stories and tell me how good the show was.

Now, I had worked in Chicago as program director at WBBM-TV and I grew to really trust Carolyn’s instinct as a producer. She would call me up while we were dating and harass me about who was on our local show and how bad the bookings were on my local talk show, and she was absolutely right. She becomes a passionate Regis Philbin fan.

Roll the clock forward about two months. Our general manager gets a call from Norman Brokaw, who was Regis’ agent, asking if he’d like to go out to lunch with Regis Philbin. My boss asked me if I had anything I could do with Regis Philbin. I said, “We don’t have a slot for a morning show and we’re locked in on our afternoon programming.” My boss said, “Yeah, but Norman Brokaw wants to create a marketplace for him. He wants to have a lunch where it will get reported back to [then KABC-TV general manager] John Severino that somebody’s interested in him.” My boss said “Why don’t we go to lunch with Regis and Norman Brokaw at the Hillcrest Country Club? We’ll make Sev pay more for him.” Who am I to say no?

My boss left a few months later and I became the general manager. Anyway, we made Sev pay more and Regis got a short-term contract. After about three years, he went to NBC. During that time I kept in touch with him as a fan and as a neighbor. I said, “If it doesn’t work out at NBC, I’ll have a job for you.” He did, I think, six months at NBC in a half-hour talk show that failed primarily, I think, because a half-hour format is not right. I did call him up on the day it got canceled and we began discussions about him coming to Channel 2.

Now I had been running Channel 2 about 4½ years. I was looking for an afternoon show. Regis had briefly done “A.M. in the P.M.” on Channel 7. I thought it worked fine. I went to my managers and said I’d really like to sign Regis for a talk show. They said, “Fine, but you can only commit to 13 weeks.”

I’m not stupid, if it’s failing I can’t leave it on the air. On the other hand, I can’t offer Regis a 13-week boilerplate contract, because he’s just been let go by NBC. He’s in his 50s, he has two kids at home and tuitions ahead of him. I’ve got to offer him a minimum of a one-year contract. I can find something to do with him on our news.

At the time, for whatever reason, CBS wouldn’t let me do the deal. At the same time, Sev was back in New York as head of the owned-and-operated ABC stations division. He said [to Regis], “You don’t want to go to Channel 2. They don’t know what they’re doing. You want to come to ABC. We’ve always been successful with morning shows. We know how to do it.” So Regis decided to go to New York instead of taking the 13-week contract we offered him. I couldn’t argue with that.

In part because of that and some other short-term thinking, I decided it would be more fun to go over to the Walt Disney Co. rather than stay at CBS. Regis is ensconced in New York with Kathie Lee [Gifford]. Brooke Bailey Johnson was the program director at WABC. Brooke had been the other associate producer at “A.M. Chicago” with my wife. We began discussions about syndicating “Regis and Kathie Lee,” which I wanted to do at Disney as the first head of programming and production for the new syndication division, Buena Vista. I wanted my first original project to be “Regis and Kathie Lee” because I was passionate about it.

It took almost two years to get it through the process. It was a complicated contract to negotiate. We had to structure a contract with WABC that paid them off progressively over time what would be a larger and larger license fee, because they couldn’t participate in the back end of the show. It was all about taking what he was doing on WABC and putting it out to a national audience.

Our sales staff at Buena Vista was looking for a single-issue talk show because at that time, Oprah Winfrey and Phil Donahue defined talk shows, and the former multi-topic shows, Merv Griffin, Dinah Shore and Mike Douglas, had all disappeared. The sales staff was saying, “We’re going to have a hard time selling this. Our clients are all asking for single-issue talk, they don’t want multi-issue talk. They don’t want happy talk.” We said, “Look at Regis’ record with ‘A.M. Los Angeles’ and ‘A.M. New York.’” And the most important thing is that [the reigning single-issue shows] weren’t live. Regis was live. He was talking about what happened on TV last night.

Nobody had ever taken out a live syndicated program before. We called it “Live With Regis and Kathie Lee” to stress that. We did have two talents on the show. Calling it “The Regis Philbin Show With Kathie Lee Gifford” would have been a challenge. The rest is 20 years of history. It works because it’s essential television.