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Fabulous Times, Fateful Fortune

Jan 19, 2004  •  Post A Comment

Life is good for Roger King. He has a beautiful wife, Raemali, whom he calls “my real partner.” He has showplace houses in Boca Raton, Fla., and Bay Head, N.J., and a stable of thoroughbreds at South Florida’s Gulfstream Park with the bloodlines Mr. King hopes will make them contenders for the Kentucky Derby. His three grown daughters still come home for the holidays.
The home they come to is nestled alongside the Intracoastal Waterway in tony Boca Raton. Sleek speedboats and yachts, one of them Mr. King’s, can be seen from almost anywhere in the house. The obligatory swimming pool, accessorized with a hot tub and a nearby wet bar, sports a crest with Mr. King’s initials inlaid on the bottom.
The Boca Raton house is Mr. King’s base, which makes it the de facto headquarters of King World Productions, the company he still runs in “a very hands-on” manner. Even after the merger with CBS, King World still needs a lot of running, according to Mr. King.
“It’s a full-time job-sales, putting out fires, all those kinds of things,” he said.
A full-wall collage of King World events and stars dominates his office just off the billiard room, looking out on the Intracoastal and swimming pool.
“This is my life,” Mr. King said proudly.
Movie Host
Among his siblings, Roger King, 59, is the only one still consumed by the world of TV syndication. His younger brother Michael, once an active partner in driving King World to the top, has retired, transferring his energies to charitable endeavors. Two older brothers, Robert and Richard, left the business years ago. His two younger sisters have always been silent partners.
Mr. King said he never envisioned the spectacular success he enjoys, but he never doubted he would do well.
“I knew I would be successful because I was hard-working and I studied television,” he said.
Hard-working is an understatement. There was a time when his father, Charles King, who founded King World, could not afford to pay his sons, not when the company was grossing only about $72,000 a year. Roger King made his own way as the chatty host of an all-night movie show on an obscure UHF TV station in Hollywood, Fla. The conditions were Spartan. The station was housed in a row of cinderblock units. Rifle fire from a shooting gallery next door could be heard through the walls.
Mr. King hosted the show all night, then sold time on it during the day. The movies- the kind that had fallen into the public domain-were so old and grainy, he was essentially selling himself, a commodity that has always been his specialty.
Mr. King was also selling King World’s only property at the time, a hundred or so episodes of “The Little Rascals.” When Charles King died unexpectedly in 1972, the business passed to his sons and they ran with it. They struck a deal to serve as subsyndicators-working the territory east of the Mississippi-for two game shows, “Tic Tac Dough” and “The Joker’s Wild.”
King World didn’t really take off, however, until the brothers connected with Merv Griffin, who was trying to syndicate “Wheel of Fortune,” which had lost its daytime slot on NBC.
“Merv tried to sell it to everyone. No one wanted it, so we took it,” Mr. King said. “We sold the hell out of it, but we didn’t get New York, Los Angeles and Chicago, because they really didn’t know King World.”
`Jeopardy!’ and `Oprah’
The rap in the nation’s largest markets was that “Wheel” was a “dumb” game show, Mr. King said. He took umbrage, inasmuch as the No. 1 game show at the time was “Family Feud”-not a favorite of his. “We knocked it off the following year,” Mr. King said with glee.
“Jeopardy!” rode “Wheel’s” coattails because the Kings knew they needed a companion half-hour to compete with the other blocks. Another game show culled from NBC daytime, “Jeopardy!” had been mismarketed in its first syndication go-round, Mr. King said. “They tried to take it too highbrow. They didn’t even have a final round in one version.”
After Mr. Griffin tweaked the content, the Kings took the show to market. Mr. King said he could see “Jeopardy!” “lasting forever. Merv did a really brilliant job with both shows.”
“Wheel” and “Jeopardy!” established King World; a talk host in Chicago made the company master of TV’s domain.
“In 1985 we picked up a show called `Oprah Winfrey,”’ Mr. King said, clearly not tired of telling a story he has repeated thousands of times. “She jumped through the TV and talked right to the viewers. The audience loved it. The rest is history.”
The Kings have had as keen an eye for talent as they have for shows with breakout potential.
With a big assist from Ms. Winfrey, they recognized and launched her heir apparent, Dr. Phil McGraw, star of the breakout syndication hit, “Dr. Phil.”
Life of O’Reilly
Going way back, they also uncovered another star in the making, a young reporter for ABC named Bill O’Reilly. Mr. King hired him to succeed David Frost as the host of “Inside Edition,” a program Mr. King said he invented, named and launched.
“Bill did a very good job for us, but I didn’t see him becoming what he has become. I didn’t see the opinionation I see now.”
“Inside Edition” is now in its 16th season, the longest-running program of its kind and a major revenue producer for King World. However, the backbone of the company remains talk and game shows. This is by design, Mr. King said.
“There will be talk shows and game shows when that meteor has come and destroyed the earth. Thousands of years from now, there still will be talk shows.”
Mr. King won’t be around, but he’d like to think there will still be a King World to syndicate the best of them.