NEW YORK – Dennis Gillespie, who as a top syndication executive at Viacom Enterprises helped draw up the sales blueprint that turned “The Cosby Show” into the first billion-dollar-grossing TV series in worldwide syndication, died of a heart attack Thursday Dec. 19 in Orlando, Fla. He was 64.
Joining Viacom in 1982 as senior VP of marketing, Gillespie quickly showed his expertise in successfully convincing TV stations to buy the rights to some of the company’s huge inventory of off-network series, from “The Honeymooners” to “Twilight Zone” to “All in the Family.”
But in 1986, Gillespie and his boss Joe Zaleski, then president of domestic syndication, crafted the strategy of selling “Cosby” reruns to TV stations for a weekly license fee instead of the standard per-episode price.
This innovative device of selling an off-network sitcom as though it were a firstrun strip inflated Viacom’s revenues by more than 100% in some markets where bidding wars erupted among TV stations.
Elevated to president of worldwide marketing and domestic features and off-network sales for Viacom Enterprises, Gillespie went on to harvest big revenues from reruns of “Roseanne” and to create a lucrative marketplace for hard-to-sell off-network series such as “Matlock.”
Gillespie’s only other job in the business was a 25-year stint as a programming and marketing executive for the Peters, Griffin & Woodward TV-station rep firm from 1957 to 1982. At PGW, where he eventually rose to executive VP, Gillespie’s main role was to advise the company’s many TV station clients about what syndicated series to buy and how to market and schedule them.
Survivors include two children, Dennis Jr. and Nancy; and a sister, Marjorie. A memorial service will be Friday Dec. 27 at First Church Congregational in Fairfield, Conn. There’ll be a memorial reception in New York City in early January. Gillespie’s family asks that instead of flowers donations should go to the American Heart Assn.