Peter Orton, founder of the pioneering British children’s TV shingle HIT Entertainment, died Dec. 5, after suffering from cancer for more than a decade. He was 64.
A larger than life figure in almost every way, Orton was a self-made man who launched HIT with a $600,000 overdraft in 1989 subsequently selling the company for $978 million in 2005.
During the intervening years he built up a studio that sold its shows to almost every territory in the world.
Titles like “Bob The Builder,” “Thomas The Tank Engine,” “Pugwash,” “Pingu” and “Barney” made the company one of the top names in preschool entertainment.
Physically imposing and always dressed immaculately, Orton never forgot that he began his career as a salesman — working at a navel tailors in his native Portsmouth, an English port on the south coast.
“I have always been a salesman and very proud of it,” he liked to tell people. “Almost every other salesman I have ever met at some stage in their career starts to deny that’s what they do.
“They all want to be a COO or a CEO or something. The reality is that the salesman is the person who creates the business.”
But Orton was an accomplished businessman who understood and backed the creative process. Moreover, he surrounded himself with talented people.
His first job in TV was selling programs for Television International Enterprises where an early coup was securing rights for the 1970 soccer World Cup in Africa, the Middle East and the Caribbean, reputedly making $700,000 profit in ten days.
Another triumph was acquiring international rights for “Sesame Street.” Orton was so successful at selling the show that its producers, the Children’s Television Workshop, offered him a job in New York.
It was as the workshop’s VP of international sales that he met Jim Henson, creator of the Muppets. Together the two formed Henson International Television (HIT).
When Henson sold the combo to Disney, Orton decided to strike out on his own taking the initials of the company, HIT, without securing Disney’s permission, for the new venture.
The role model for many of Blighty’s subsequent generation of TV entrepreneurs, in 1997 HIT was one of the first U.K. indies to float on the London stock exchange. In 2000 HIT acquired Lyrick Group, the U.S. group behind “Barney,” which was followed by the acquisition of Gullane, producers of “Thomas the Tank Engine.”
Away from the entertainment industry, the warm-hearted Orton bred race horses, naming them after his TV characters including Bob The Builder. He was awarded the BAFTA Lifetime Achievement awarded and recognized as a Commander of the Royal Victorian Order.
Orton is survived by his wife Sue and a son.