DICK ASKIN’S QUEST for Excellence

Jan 19, 2004  •  Post A Comment

This week at the National Association of Television Program Executives conference, Dick Askin will be in familiar territory, both in his role as president and CEO of Tribune Entertainment and as the chairman of the Academy of Television Arts & Sciences. That is quite a contrast from eight years ago when Mr. Askin arrived in Las Vegas for the same gathering on the day he started working at Tribune.
“It is very bizarre going into a company the first day of NATPE,” he recalled recently. “I didn’t know anybody, other than [Tribune CEO] Dennis [FitzSimons]. And Dennis was in Chicago. I didn’t know any of the staff. I didn’t know if I was talking to a buyer or one of my employees unless I looked down at their nametag.”
Tribune started as a newspaper company and expanded into TV stations and other businesses. It had an entertainment division when Mr. Askin joined. Its most important product was “Soul Train.”
“Once I arrived and started looking under the rocks I realized there wasn’t a whole lot here,” said Mr. Askin. “But the potential was pretty obvious.”
Over the past eight years, his hasn’t always been an easy road. Tribune found success with action hours such as “BeastMaster” and “Mutant X” and the game show “Family Feud,” but faced the difficulties in a changing marketplace.
At this week’s NATPE, Tribune’s big push won’t be for a new series, but for a high-profile package of theatrical films being syndicated to local stations. The package, acquired from DreamWorks, encompasses its entire 34-picture library, including “Saving Private Ryan,” “Gladiator” and “Shrek.”
The Tribune stations anchor the barter package. At NATPE, they will be looking to cover the rest of the United States. “Our biggest challenge isn’t going to be selling this package,” Mr. Askin said. “It’s really how to say no in a lot of ways to stations while we make sure we get the best stations, the best time periods, the best promotion. And we will have the leverage. I think this will be the easiest package that I’ve ever sold.”
Market conditions have helped shape Tribune. “One of the things that I liked about our company, candidly, is that there’s a lot of really smart people and there’s not a lot of ego involved in our decisions,” Mr. Askin added. “We saw the shrinking marketplace, the economics changing, so what we’ve been doing over the last four or five years is diversifying our revenue streams so that we don’t have to have a hit in order to survive.”
One move was to revamp the 10-acre studio lot in Hollywood where Tribune and KTLA-TV are based. A historic location where the first talkies were made, Tribune invested over $10 million to upgrade to digital production facilities there. Today it is rented by shows like “Judge Judy” and “Sharon Osbourne.”

Of course, a lot of production has left the United States, including some Tribune shows. “We are all paid to maximize profits,” Mr. Askin said. “The real problem is that both our state and national governments really haven’t done anything to address the competitive issues. So, for example, we have a show right now [shooting] in Vancouver and another in Toronto that I would like to have done here. The only reason we’re not is the governments do not incentivize production at all.”
In his role with the TV academy, Mr. Askin has made runaway production a priority. He helped found a committee within ATAS to address the issue and plans to sit on the new State of California Entertainment Advisory Council, created by Gov. Schwarzenegger.
“It doesn’t have to be done the same way [as by Canada and others] and it doesn’t necessarily have to be done to the same extent,” Mr. Askin said. “But it has to be something, and it has to be meaningful.”
Why take on a second job? “I wanted to make a larger contribution,” Mr. Askin said. “And I think I brought [to ATAS] a different point of view, skill level and type of management that works for our current board of governors. A lot of it is getting the right people, giving them goals, letting them do their job and then recognizing their achievements.”
A tall man with a salesman’s enthusiasm but without the slickness, Mr. Askin has always set his own goals high. After growing up on Long Island, N.Y., and earning degrees from Rutgers, The University of Texas and Fordham he served in the military and then got his start selling TV time for WNBC-TV in New York. He moved to L.A. to head sales at KNBC-TV, jumped to Fries Entertainment and then the Samuel Goldwyn Co., which he left to join Tribune.
His priorities at the TV academy include instilling a sense of excellence into its activities, pushing the TV community toward real diversity in the workplace, improving relations with the National Television Academy in New York, making the academy more relevant for major companies and expanding membership. “Over the years I think the academy kind of drifted away from a lot of mainstream people,” Mr. Askin said. “Maybe it was just the new generation, but I realized in talking to industry leaders around town, especially among the younger fast-track people, there’s just kind of a complete disconnect from the academy.”
He also wants changes in the Emmys. Mr. Askin was not happy with the last show, which had rotating comedians as hosts. He calls it a “gamble that just didn’t work.” “I think the focus of the show really has to be on excellence,” Mr. Askin said. “I think the focus of the last show, intentionally or not, was on comedy.”
He also wants to make sure that every Emmy winner is also an Academy member: “They are the best and the brightest, by definition, in our business.”
At Tribune and at the academy, Mr. Askin’s goal is to find the best and to be the best. He may not always get there, but in his efforts, he sets a high standard for the entire industry. And that matters.