Rosey reigns over King World

They may be nervous as hell about it, but broadcasters are lining up to place their bets in the Roseanne sweepstakes.

Stations in Detroit, Nashville, San Diego, Phoenix, Kansas City and a half-dozen other markets have signed on for the fall 1998 talkshow entry during the past week. Distributor King World Prods. got the ball rolling last month by striking a rich deal with five top-10 market NBC O&Os.

In a testament to the buzz surrounding the Roseanne show, King World sealed the NBC group deal without having to give up a piece of the profit, as is becoming the norm in today’s tight firstrun distribution landscape.

Roseanne describes the chance to host her own daily talkshow as “a dream come true.” But some TV station managers who are committing big bucks for the show are having nightmares about the star’s notoriously volatile personality.

At the same time, they’re too afraid to bet against Roseanne and risk losing a potential blockbuster to a competitor. And no one in syndication discounts the sales and marketing prowess of firstrun-syndie dynamo King World Prods.

With Oprah Winfrey’s talkshow future a question mark, King World has a lot riding on the fortunes of Roseanne’s “Rosie O’Donnell”-esque endeavor.

Despite Roseanne’s golden track record with those who comprise daytime TV’s top demographic, the talkshow graveyard is littered with bodies of comedy performers who failed to make an easy transition to the daily grind: Joan Rivers, Vicki Lawrence, Whoopi Goldberg, to name a few.

“It’s fair for stations to be concerned that the show could blow up,” says Garnett Losak, VP and director of programming for Blair Television.

“But (buyers) tend to be more attuned to the value of a big name, and Roseanne’s a huge name,” Losak said. “It’s more likely that she’s going to want this show to work, and King World is going to want this show to work, and so stations feel they’ll both work hard to make it work.”

Still, questions abound. During the nine-year run of her ABC sitcom, Roseanne was notorious for axing writers and producers for one reason or another. Hollywood’s creative community is wondering whether she’ll be able to maintain enough stability on the set to deliver five hourlong shows for 39 weeks each year.

Roseanne was unavailable for comment. Her manager, Jeff Wald, argues that her track record of writing, producing, directing and starring in a top-rated primetime sitcom speaks for itself.

“She did 200-plus episodes for nine years — not one came in late, not one came in over-budget,” Wald says. “Any time Hollywood sees a strong woman who speaks her mind, they start using the C-word.”

A-list connections

In an echo of the sales pitch that helped sell “Rosie O’Donnell,” Roseanne is promising to mine her celebrity connections to bring A-list talent to the set. Whether her often acerbic style stands in the way remains to be seen. She’s said she plans to stay away from the sleazier side of the talkshow business, but does want to feature “regular people” and audience participation in her show.

Naturally, King World addresses head-on some of the concerns raised by station buyers in its sales pitch for the show. On the 10-minute reel, Roseanne — a self-described couch potato raised on Dinah Shore and Johnny Carson — says she’s excited about tackling her latest challenge.

“It’s going to be a nonstop, killer hour,” Roseanne says on the tape. “This show is going to be funny, inspiring and sometimes outrageous, but more than anything, it’s going to be entertaining.”

Playing defense

Insiders say the NBC station group’s decision to buy the show was partly a defensive maneuver to protect its afternoon/evening local newscasts, which can account for one-third or more of the advertising dollars pulled in by a strong network affiliate.

NBC’s station chiefs also were impressed by what they turned up in market research on Roseanne, particularly her wide-ranging appeal with women of diverse age, racial and ethnic groups.

“We looked at this project with a degree of caution,” says Jerry Eaton, vice president and general manager of CBS O&O KPIX San Francisco, which is also on the Roseanne bandwagon. “But we’ve got enough confidence in her and King World that she’ll get a high (initial) tune-in, and if the show is good, people will stay with her. Sometimes, you just have to roll the dice.”

And that’s just what King World is doing. As company chairman Roger King sees it, Roseanne represents the future for the cash-rich, debt-free, family-run business.

“I need this show more than anything else,” says King, who heads the company along with his younger brother, Michael, the company’s vice chairman and CEO.

“Roseanne has turned this company in the right direction and we’re going to build off it,” Roger King adds.

Fortuitous timing

The timing of the Roseanne/King World union is fortuitous for both. With her sitcom reaching an end last month, Roseanne was looking to launch the next phase of her TV career just as the King brothers were hoping to usher in a new era of growth for King World.

Now valued at about $1.3 billion, King World was founded in 1964 by their parents, Charles and Lucille King, on the strength of the Hal Roach “Little Rascals” comedy shorts.

A glance at King World’s latest 10-K filing explains why Roseanne is so important to the company.

Some 39% of King World’s $663.4 million in revenue in fiscal year 1996 came from “The Oprah Winfrey Show,” by far the biggest money-maker in the talkshow arena.

But Winfrey may decide to end her hugely successful run in talk TV in the near future. Her contract expires at the end of the 1997-98 season; she has until September to let King World know whether she intends to reup for another three years.

Other cash cows

By comparison, King World’s other cash cows, perennial gameshow favorites “Wheel of Fortune” and “Jeopardy!,” accounted for 19% and 17%, respectively, of the company’s total revenue. Together, the success of “Oprah,” “Wheel” and “Jeopardy!” over the past decade turned King World into a veritable mint, driving the company’s net income from $9.8 million in 1985 to $150 million in 1996.

No matter what Winfrey decides, King World will be pulling in a smaller share of the “Oprah” pie beginning in the fall.

According to the 10-K filing, King World’s profit-sharing deal with Winfrey’s Harpo Inc. is switching to a distribution fee based on a percentage of the strip’s gross annual revenue, estimated at more than $200 million.

On its own

To steel itself against the loss of income, King World had been pursuing mergers with larger media companies, such as Turner Broadcasting System and New World Communications, over the past 2-1/2 years. No deal ever came to fruition, and today Roger King says the company has a fresh, bullish perspective on the best means of investing some $700 million-plus in cash reserves.

“It was a messy situation last year, and the year before wasn’t a helluva lot better,” King says. “Quite frankly, when Oprah was going through (an earlier contract renewal) decision-making thing a couple years back, we were scared. We didn’t know what to do with ourselves.”

Wall Street apparently agreed. King World’s stock has been stuck in the mid-$30 range for most of the past year, compared with a five-year high of $44.50 in April 1996.But in Roseanne, King is convinced he has found his next 10-year talkshow franchise. And the company is gambling at least $20 million to $25 million on that hope.

But if Roseanne doesn’t pan out as the next Oprah-like phenom, King World has other irons in the fire. In the works is a revival of the gameshow “Hollywood Squares,” although the project is tied up in a legal dispute between King World and Sony, which produces “Wheel of Fortune” and “Jeopardy!.”

Additionally, King World is close to inking a deal with Barbra Streisand to produce and distribute TV movies and other longform programming. The company also is starting to develop other programming for nonsyndication outlets.

“We started plann
ing for our future one year ago,” says King, “and we figured our best choice was to build King World. We have all the resources. We’re going after everything.”

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