Impresario had knack for finding potential in programming

Dick Clark was famous as “America’s oldest teenager” on “American Bandstand” and the host of ABC’s Times Square New Year’s Eve celebrations. But within the entertainment industry, his reputation wasn’t built on celebrity but his track record as a savvy and shrewd businessman.

Starting in the 1970s, Dick Clark Prods. became a powerhouse in the production of specials, the Golden Globes and other kudocasts and a range of variety programs. When he sold the company in 2002 to a group led by Mosaic Media Group for $136 million, Clark reaped about $100 million. His company’s output exploded in the 1980s and ’90s, churning out an average of 150 to 170 hours of TV programming per year, popularizing TV bloopers and, with the American Music Awards, reinventing kudocasts with emphasis on entertainment and star power more than acceptance speeches.

“I was really smart when I was young,” Clark said in a 1999 interview with the Television Academy’s Archive of American Television. “I knew what was ahead. I knew what it was about, and I put my car on the path to get there.”

Clark started Dick Clark Prods. in 1956, when he was given the production reins for “American Bandstand,” and he realized “they aren’t going to let me do this the rest of my life so be a producer, and I will hire myself. I will do what I love and they can’t squeeze me out. So I began to invest the talent fees I got into the talents of other people.”

His company, he said, gained a reputation for “being on time and on budget and making a profit.” When he started, they were “held up to ridicule” as being “skin flints” or “chintzy,” but when others went into the production business as competition, “they asked, ‘How do you do it?'”

Francis La Maina, who as the longtime president of Dick Clark Prods. worked for years with Clark, said that he was “probably one of the best salespeople in the business.

“He had a great knack for making a pitch to a network executive and making them see the potential for what he was pitching them,” La Maina said on Wednesday. “He was extremely persistent. he never gave up.”

When La Maina joined the company in 1966 as a controller, the company already had a handful of shows on the air as well as a concert promotion business, producing up to 150 concerts per year. Clark eventually sold the latter as that business waned when artists began hiring the promoters, and Clark ventured more into television.

“He was quite willing to take a risk in something he believed in,” La Maina said.

His big break into primetime came in 1972, with a rock and roll special featuring Three Dog Night. Clark produced the first New Year’s Eve special that same year, and it became a mainstay on ABC two years later. Clark saw opportunity for a younger skewing telecast from Times Square against an aging Guy Lombardo.

Another hipper alternative was the American Music Awards, launched in 1974, as a competitor to the Grammys. The AMAs were determined by a poll of music buyers, versus the Grammys votes of industry members, but the success of the show proved the public’s appetite for an array of award shows, foreshadowing the proliferation of kudocasts made popular by a mix of skillful marketing and an entertaining ceremony. In the early 1980s, after the Golden Globes were dropped by CBS following the Pia Zadora scandal, Clark partnered with the Hollywood Foreign Press Assn. to produce the show, and managed to land a spot on cable and later a lucrative contract with NBC. Although the rights for the show are now the subject of a legal battle between the HFPA and the current owners of Dick Clark Prods., Red Zone Capital, the show’s allure grew to the point where NBC was willing to spend $20 million per year to carry the kudocast.

By the mid-1980s, Clark was making the Forbes 400 list, and the company, which went public in 1985, was boasting revenue of $55 million with $12 million in profits.

Radio was equally lucrative for Clark, with “The Dick Clark National Music Survey” running on 600 stations to an audience of almost 9 million at one point. Three times as popular was “Dick Clark’s Rock, Roll and Remember,” syndicated on Unistar Communications, one of the nation’s largest radio networks, which was co-founded by Clark. In 1993, it was merged with Infinity Broadcasting. In 1994 he founded Click Records. He also had other ventures, including a chain of restaurants and a Branson, Mo. theater. His company in 2005 began producing Fox’s “So You Think You Can Dance.”

In the TV Academy interview, Clark said being an entrepreneur was “one of the better things I do” and as much as he loved being a TV persona, “You got to know when your time is, when the party’s over.”

Related:
Variety remembers Dick Clark
Dick Clark dies at 82
Photos: Dick Clark through the years
BLTV: Remembering a major player

Filed Under:

Follow @Variety on Twitter for breaking news, reviews and more