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A look inside the King dynasty

Jan 19, 2004  •  Post A Comment

In 1965, a family named King reigned on television. There were dozens of them, a bevy of singing sisters, their husbands and tow-headed progeny. For a year or so these Kings and their variety show were pretty big on the small screen.
They almost certainly had no idea that in Asbury Park, N.J., an identically named clan would soon impact the medium in ways no one could have imagined. The New Jersey Kings would grow up to found King World, an empire unrivaled in the world of independent television distribution. The greatest exposure the singing Kings are likely to get these days is as an answer on “Jeopardy!,” one of several shows that helped propel the aptly named King World to the top.
Charles and Lucille King, the founders of TV’s King dynasty, had six children, in order of appearance: Robert, Richard, Roger, Karen, Michael and Diana. It was a family dominated in large measure by the robust presence of the father, a man who had long been successful in radio syndication and then when entertainment programming disappeared on radio, moved to TV syndication.
Roger King refers to his father warmly as “flamboyant.” Michael King elaborated this way: “He was a great, great salesman and a big guy-6-foot-3 and 300 pounds, but he was fit, not flabby. He was kind of a cross between Jackie Gleason and John Wayne. Add to that an infectious laugh. He could be very funny-in radio he used to do the audience warm-ups himself.”
Lucille King is said by her son Michael to have been “a unique and elegant lady,” a woman who encouraged her children without trying to be the dowager matriarch. In later years when the company went public and there was plenty of wealth to spread around, she distributed her shares to her children.
“I don’t want to ever be in a position where it’s three-to-three and I have to cast the deciding vote,” Michael King recalled her saying. “Take the shares. I know you’ll all take care of me.”
King World, in what has become a legend of the TV syndication business, was started with the distribution rights to “The Little Rascals.” In the 1960s and into the early ’70s, Charles King also distributed other programs, among them the first self-described “fist-in-your-mouth” argumentative talk show. Its host, Joe Pyne, was a man who called his audience interrogators “morons” and once threatened to shove a Jewish man’s yarmulke down his throat. A far cry from the group hugs and fuzziness of “Oprah” and “Dr. Phil,” but definitely buzz-worthy in his day.
Though a King family anecdote has a 14-year-old Michael once being told to go outside and rake leaves when he questioned one of his father’s business deals, Michael King ultimately learned a lot around that table.
“My dad gave us principles of honesty and ethics in business,” Mr. King said. “Dad told us to go into a profession you want, work hard and love what you’re doing. He said to build strong relationships, and if you were loyal in your dealings you would be doing business with the same people your entire career.
“Basically he said to be Switzerland,” Mr. King added. “The guy who does business with everybody, is on good terms with everyone, doesn’t take sides during wars.”
Though not all the King children became active in television, at one time or another all were in radio sales, Mr. King said.
Charles King was ill during his last years. He would die of a heart attack while on the road in 1972, making one last deal that required a handshake, not a phone call. His declining health had taken its toll on the business; there had been no new acquisitions for some time, and the only thing left in the hopper at the end was “The Rascals.”
Sons Robert, Roger and Michael picked up the business and moved forward. Robert King was president from 1972-83, leaving due to philosophical differences over the direction of the company.
Though rumors of family squabbles were not unheard of, any serious friction is a thing of the past, according to Michael King. “We all get together several times a year,” Mr. King said. “Time has mellowed what problems we had. We’re close.”
Robert King formed The Program Source, his own TV distribution effort, in 1983. In 1985 his company began syndicating “The Price Is Right” in access time periods for Mark Goodson, hosted by Tom Kennedy. The market was glutted by then, and it didn’t work.
The eldest King sibling went on to a successful run as a television executive, becoming president of Columbia Pictures TV’s distribution division in 1986. From 1988-90 he ran Orion Television until the feature film division tanked and the entire company went down. He rejoined King World as senior VP of new business development, and then in 1995 became a consultant to the company.
Richard King was not interested in pursuing a career in the TV business, though he served on the King World board from 1988-99. He became a real estate developer, specializing in homes and condominiums.
Roger King and Michael King took the business public, then merged with CBS in 1999. Michael King became a consultant to CBS Enterprises and does much charity work.
Karen, often referred to in company filings by her married name of Karen Rabe, was never actively involved in the business aside from being an investor. Diana King was a member of the King World board of directors from 1984 until the merger. Both sisters are said to be philanthropists in the arts.