My Friend, the Larger-Than-Life Roger King

Jan 19, 2004  •  Post A Comment

If Roger King didn’t exist, you couldn’t make him up.
He’s a salesman, a pitchman and, usually, a gentleman; a pioneer and seer; salutary, visionary, revolutionary, rarely cautionary and somewhat missionary; capitalistic and hedonistic; romantic and heretic; and has had as big an impact on our business as anyone who’s ever been a part of it. He’s also my friend.
We go back to the mid-’70s, to a time not that long after he and his brothers took over King World from their father, Charlie, who died while traveling to peddle “The Little Rascals” for syndication. That old chestnut was just about all the company still owned, unless you count a 60-second insert called “The Butcher.”
Today King World Productions is synonymous with the best in syndicated television, a billion-dollar enterprise that’s gone from fitting in Charlie’s hip pocket to being a key part of Viacom. Like all good salesmen, Roger always believes in himself and his pitch. But there’s something more. He has a romantic, missionary zeal for his product, backed up by cold-eyed research and close study of the marketplace, the people in it and the money to be made there.
Dealing with this larger-than-life personality must be much like what it was to deal with men like Harry Cohn, the legendary head of Columbia Pictures back in the ’30s and ’40s and one of the pioneers of the modern motion picture business. Mr. Cohn said that whenever he squirmed in his seat while previewing a movie, he knew something was wrong with the picture. This prompted a prominent screenwriter of the time to say, “Imagine, the whole world wired to Harry Cohn’s ass!” I don’t know what part of Roger our industry is wired to, but he has the same kind of instinct.
Look at the evidence.
When Roger and his brothers decided to take a moderately successful daytime TV show into syndication in the early ’80s, syndication was an entirely different animal than it is today. How’s this for a concept-there was no barter! But that made it possible for Roger to roll out that show as an access strip without New York, Los Angeles and Chicago.
The show was “Wheel of Fortune,” and we at WDIV-TV in Detroit were the first major market to buy it, with WPVI-TV in Philly following soon after. Today, not only is “Wheel” the top syndicated show in America and a hit around the world, it’s also the most successful syndicated show of all time.
After selling it to us, the brothers King used our numbers from the November book to sell to the rest of the country, and the following year to clear another mildly successful daytime show, “Jeopardy!,” as an access partner. One thing Roger understands as much as anything is controlling the real estate. Over time Roger came to know many markets better even than those in them. Combine that with his passion for his programs and business, and you have a formidable-almost unstoppable-force.
When Roger gets wound up selling a new show, he works the phones for weeks before taking it to market, lighting “prairie fires” of anticipation and demand, getting stations from one coast to the other bidding against each other so as not to miss “the next `Oprah,”’ (remember “Les Brown” or “Rolanda” or “Ananda”?), each time whipping up a fury of competitive interest. And he actually did come up with “the next `Oprah”’-“Dr. Phil.” The greatest thing for our industry was to have another hit in syndication, but somehow for Roger to be selling it is painful. Who else could leverage “Oprah” and “Dr. Phil” when they can’t even compete against each other?
On a personal level, I admire the fact that though Roger has dipped hard into nearly every vice known to man, he got past them and remained likable throughout it all. He’s very smart; extremely loyal and competitive; unique; bold; fearless; and, while revolutionizing the business, he remained humble. Well, kill that last adjective. But I stick by the rest.
Roger King couldn’t be a better choice for TelevisionWeek’s first Television Syndication Lifetime Achievement Award. n
Alan Frank is president, Post-Newsweek Stations.