TV legend put Oprah, Dr. Phil on the map

He was the leader of the family business that ignited the first-run syndication biz in the 1980s with enduring hits “Wheel of Fortune,” “Jeopardy” and “The Oprah Winfrey Show.” And he was a colorful legend of the syndie sales beat, renowned for his streetwise charm and encyclopedic knowledge of TV stations and markets.

Roger King, CEO of CBS Television Distribution, died Saturday after suffering a stroke the day before at his home in Boca Raton, Fla. He was 63.

King was named head of CBS’ domestic and international syndie units in January 2000 following the Eye’s acquisition of King World Prods., the company King and his younger brother Michael built into a programming powerhouse with profits that rivaled those of major studios.

“He had a lot of sides to him, and they were all pretty good,” said Michael King. “He revered the broadcasting business. From the time we were kids, we wanted to be in it, and he was very proud of the fact that we were able to go pretty far in it.”

King’s death was unexpected; he had not been ill, though he did suffer from diabetes. Just days before, King had been engaging with broadcast and cable buyers on sales of first-run and off-network programs, in preparation for the syndie biz’s annual Natl. Assn. of Television Program Executives convention in late January.

“We have lost a true original,” said Robert Madden, exec veep of CBS Television Distribution and a longtime associate and friend of King. “He changed television and the way it does business. He was someone who started with $50 and built a $500 million company.”

CBS prexy and CEO Leslie Moonves called King “a truly original executive with an unparalleled combination of business acumen, passion and personality.”

At a husky 6-foot-4, the chain-smoking, garrulous King had a commanding presence that complemented his prowess in sales. Station owners often described pitch meetings with King as sitting through a “hurricane” of hucksterism that was always rooted in a sophisticated analysis of an individual station’s needs and the market’s competitive dynamic. Long after King World became hugely successful, King was well known for his zeal to hit the road and make personal sales calls on his many friends even in small and midsized markets that would not merit the attention of other company chiefs.

King’s outsized personality got him in trouble at times. In the mid-1980s, he did a stint in rehab, and in 1987, he pleaded no contest to cocaine possession after getting into a fight with a cab driver in Florida. But King World was so successful — and King so intertwined with it — that his personal issues never significantly interfered with the company’s growth.

“Roger was the best sales executive this industry has ever known. He was a larger-than-life partner who helped me launch two decades of success in syndication. I will never forget what he did for me. And this industry will never forget his legendary presence,” Oprah Winfrey said in a statement Saturday.

Born Aug. 22, 1944, in New Jersey, King was one of six children of Charles and Lucille King. Charles King was a radio producer and program salesman whose up-and-down fortunes kept his family constantly on the move during Roger’s youth. In 1964, Charles King wrangled the TV rights to Hal Roach’s 1930s “Our Gang” comedy shorts for $50,000, a sum that King did not have in the bank at the time. He repacked them into half-hour TV segs and dubbed them “The Little Rascals.” He named his new distribution company King World because “he thought ‘World’ sounded impressive,” Madden said.

Roger King showed his sales acumen at the outset of his career, in ad sales at the Daily Record newspaper in Morristown, N.J. He distinguished himself there by coming up with a plan for a slew of local mom-and-pop businesses for a two-page ad touting the local business district. He then followed his brother Robert into radio ad sales for several New Jersey stations.

In 1972, after Charles King died while on the road making a sales call in San Antonio, Roger and his siblings — Robert, Michael, Richard, Diana and Karen — took over the floundering company, with Roger serving as chairman and Michael as president.

They handled distribution and sales on a contract basis in some markets for syndicated gameshows including “Joker’s Wild” and “Tic Tac Dough,” but they were abruptly let go after a dispute with the production company on another show. The brothers were looking around for a new gameshow to handle when they settled on “Wheel of Fortune,” a modest performer for NBC’s daytime sked at the time. The brothers studied the show’s ratings performance in dozens of markets around the country, and realized the show was a solid player no matter what time period it aired. They figured it had strong potential as a more elaborate nighttime version, and King dogged “Wheel” creator Merv Griffin for weeks until he convinced him to cut a deal with King World.

The show was a hard sell in many markets. It did not have outlets in major cities like New York and Los Angeles when the evening edition of “Wheel,” with newcomers Pat Sajak hosting and Vanna White turning letters, premiered in the fall of 1983. But King focused on landing the show in the best evening timeslots on strong stations, rightly figuring that the show’s perf would be his best sales tool.

Among the innovations King World brought to the marketing of “Wheel” was seeking a minute of so-called barter ad time from stations in addition to the cash license fee, a decision that would prove highly lucrative for King World’s ad sales arm, dubbed Camelot; and spending big on aggressive national marketing and promotion of the show and its hosts. By the end of the 1983-84 season, “Wheel” was off on a record-breaking run at the top of the syndie charts that endures today.

In 1984, Griffin and King World teamed to revive the Griffin quizzer “Jeopardy,” whose new host Alex Trebek quickly became a household name.

“Roger King is without a doubt the greatest salesman in the history of anything, and I don’t even limit him to just television. He could sell you anything,” Griffin famously once said of King.

But the jackpot for King World came in 1985 when Dennis Swanson, then general manager of ABC O&O WLS-TV Chicago (and now the head of the Fox Television Stations group) suggested that Roger and Michael meet with a young woman who was a breakout star on the station’s morning show “A.M. Chicago” and wanted to pursue her own daytime talkshow. The King brothers saw the potential for Oprah Winfrey to take on the reigning king of talk, Phil Donahue.

Roger King often recounted stories of how even in 1985, his pitch for a talkshow hosted by a black woman encountered resistance in some markets by some station execs. He also liked to brag about how many of those same station managers came to him begging for “The Oprah Winfrey Show” after it became an instant hit in its 1986 debut, and how he always made sure to “charge them a little extra” for the privilege.

King World went public in 1984, but it was the coin hauled in by “Oprah Winfrey” that put the company into the big leagues on Wall Street. King World’s revenue shot up from $81 million in 1985 to $476 million by 1991. Fueled by the cash license fees and ad sales on “Oprah,” “Wheel” and “Jeopardy,” the company posted $200 million in profit in 1999, the year it was acquired by CBS.

Thanks to the King brothers’ timing, King World became synonymous with the expanding fortunes of the syndie biz at a time when Paramount was prospering with its first-run revival of “Star Trek: The Next Generation” and another failed NBC skein, “Baywatch,” became a worldwide sensation through the savvy of another small syndie player, All American Television.

In its heyday, King World was known for its largess in throwing parties for its shows and at industry confabs. Roger was well known for his hard-partying ways and for his devil-may-care approach to gambling with five- and six-figure sums. The apex of that era came in January 1998 during the NATPE convention in New Orleans, when King World unveiled a talkshow hosted by Roseanne Barr and a revival of “Hollywood Squares” hosted by Whoopi Goldberg. To herald the occasion, the brothers rented out the New Orleans Superdome for a concert by Elton John, with the inside of the stadium decked out for the cocktail hour as “King World City.” The 4,000 partygoers were then herded to their seats for the performance by two giant Mardi Gras-style puppets of Roger and Michael on wheels.

Roger was also known for his shoot-from-the-hip style, particularly with reporters. He was anything but a button-down corporate type.

Talking about the failure of King World’s high-profile attempt to turn the board game Monopoly into a syndie strip, King once observed: “ ‘Monopoly’ was like communism. It looked great on paper but didn’t work in real life.”

When a small station in Kentucky yanked Barr’s talkshow off the air because of the host’s use of salty language, King was quick to defend his talent. “Look, this is a hell of a show,” he told a reporter.

After landing a modest hit with “Hollywood Squares,” King World had a run of misfires that included Barr’s show and a talk-variety strip hosted by Martin Short. More recently, King’s reputation as the master salesman was burnished by the success of “Dr. Phil,” hosted by former “Oprah” regular Dr. Phil McGraw, and cooking/lifestyle show “Rachael Ray.”

Ray said in a statement that King “once told me that the key to his salesmanship was the ability to offer a great tuna sandwich to his customers.” McGraw called King “a dear personal friend.”

When he wasn’t on the road making sales calls, King divided his time between homes in Boca Raton and Bay Head, N.J. Survivors include his five siblings, wife Raemali and three daughters.

A private funeral will be held Thursday in Palm Beach, Fla. King will be buried near his childhood home near the New Jersey shore. A public memorial service is being planned for New York in January.

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