Mel Harris, the exec who was an innovator in firstrun syndication and the homevideo biz during his 25-year run in the top ranks at Paramount and Sony Pictures Entertainment, died of cancer Saturday at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center in Los Angeles. He was 65.
Harris was known as a champion of new technologies and new markets in a biz that has often been slow to embrace change. He helped modernize the firstrun syndie biz by harnessing satellite distribution to deliver “Entertainment Tonight” to affiliates on a timely basis, and he spearheaded the studio’s 1987 revival of “Star Trek” in the form of “The Next Generation,” a high-end syndie production.
During Harris’ 14-year tenure at Par, he was among the handful of key industry execs who established the homevideo biz, and he helped create the homevid “sell-through” market by pushing Par to experiment with lower pricing of vids to encourage consumers to buy titles outright rather than just rent them.
Harris also helped launch the USA Network cabler and spearheaded Par’s launch of cable and sat-delivered channels overseas. And he was part of the team that then-Paramount chief Barry Diller assembled in the hopes, ultimately unfulfilled, of launching a Par-branded television network in 1978, with a “Star Trek” revival series as the centerpiece of its lineup.
Harris was highly regarded by friends and colleagues as a strategic thinker and a keen analyst of the biz. He earned a doctorate in mass communications from Ohio U. in 1971; his dissertation, a study of changes in consumer behavior as the number of television channels expand, was prescient about television’s future.
Before joining Par in 1977, Harris worked as a manager of TV stations in Cleveland and Philadelphia and for John Kluge’s Metromedia station group. He retired from the biz in 2002 after a three-year stint as co-prexy and chief operating officer of Sony Pictures Entertainment.
“We’ve lost one of the smartest guys in the business,” said former Fox and UPN chief Lucie Salhany, who ran Paramount’s syndie arm in the 1980s under Harris. “He was one of the smartest people I’ve ever known.”
Born in Arkansas City, Kan., Harris began his broadcasting career as a radio announcer. He served in the Army Signal Corps during Vietnam as the commander of a combat photography unit, for which he was awarded the Bronze Star.
He segued into management in working for station owner Kaiser Broadcasting and later worked in New York for Kluge’s Metromedia station group (the outlets that became the backbone of the Fox network after Rupert Murdoch bought them in 1985).
Harris joined Paramount during Diller’s tenure as chief, and he resigned in fall 1991, on the heels of Brandon Tartikoff’s arrival as studio chairman. Harris joined Sony Pictures Entertainment the following year as head of its TV division, and he quickly assumed oversight of its homevid operations as well.
During that time Harris steered Sony’s Columbia TriStar TV into the firstrun syndie biz, where it scored with long-running daytime yakker “The Ricki Lake Show.” Harris left Sony in 1995 amid a broader power struggle among the studio’s senior execs. He returned to the Culver City lot in 1999 as co-prexy and chief operating officer, overseeing most studio operations under the regime headed by chairman-CEO John Calley.
Survivors include his wife, Ruth; son, Chad, an exec at Hallmark Channel; and two grandchildren.
A memorial service will be held at 10:30 a.m. Sept. 16 at El Caballero Country Club in Tarzana.