The people's syndicator
One day in 1979, Dick Robertson strode from 30 Rock to his hotel in midtown Manhattan, passing along the way a jewelry store on East 48th Street. So pumped was the syndie salesman that he forked out for a $4,000 Rolex watch — a spontaneous gift to himself for closing his first big deal, placing reruns of “Here’s Lucy” with the NBC O&Os.(“Can you imagine today being able to do such a deal in a 24-hour period?” he exclaims.) His company, Telepictures, had practically bet the ranch on these repeats, and Robertson had managed to deliver big time. It would not be the last time. Literally hundreds of sitcom reruns, firstrun strips and movie package deals later — including an unlikely project called “The People’s Court” and a backend bonanza for the repeats of “Friends” — Robertson still sports the watch. On Jan. 17, there will be a roast of Robertson at NATPE, where a number of syndie stalwarts are being brought in to honor (and presumably be irreverent about) the exec. He is the last of a breed of syndicators who toiled and largely triumphed in the trenches of the swashbuckling syndie biz of yore. Despite having stepped down after 17 years as president of Warner Bros. Domestic Television during the summer and passing the baton to Ken Werner, Robertson is still enthusiastic about the biz. Talk to him about the deals he spearheaded during his 40-year career, and he can hardly keep from flitting from one to another. Each comes with its own colorful anecdote, his total recall of who was in the room when the deal closed, and what the ratings were when the show eventually launched. (By the third day of “People’s Court,” for example, Robertson knew they had a hit, and a new genre in syndication was born.) Ensconced now in a bungalow of his own on the Warners studio lot, Robertson is hardly focused on the past. He has two projects in the works — one with producer Suzanne de Passe on a Negro baseball league (called “Pitch Black”) and a miniseries focused on the clash between the German and Russian armies in WWII. “I’m working with a Russian oligarch and hopefully the BBC and a Russian network on this one. It’s a fascinating project and gives a whole new perspective on the war,” he says. Robertson also continues as senior advisor to Bruce Rosenblum and the Warner Bros. Television Group and is already involved in several digital and new-media initiatives. As for the current syndication biz, the always outspoken Robertson does not mince his words, calling the economics “brutal” for content suppliers, the deficits of $5 million to $7 million problematic and the high rate of failure daunting. Still, he points out, Warner Bros. has managed to stay in the syndie game because it is bent on and generally manages to attract “the best talent out there” to its projects. It could be argued, Robertson continues, that over the years the company has amassed the highest number of hits — think “Extra,” “Ellen” and “The Rosie O’Donnell Show” as well as “People’s Court” and “Love Connection” — of any syndicator (all this without benefit of a wholly owned launch station group).