Roger King: A sui generis TV titan

Rogerking1His favorite song was “Rags to Riches.” That sez a lot about Roger King, the sui generis TV exec who died Saturday at 63.

His death, coming a day after he suffered a stroke Friday morning at his home in Boca Raton, Fla., was a shock because of the sheer huge-ness of his husky 6-foot-4 presence and gravely, Rodney Dangerfield-esque baritone. He hadn’t been ill of late, though he had lived with diabetes for years.

Remembering him on Saturday, friends and colleagues gently referenced that he’d live the high life and the hard life, and that was surely true. In Vegas and other gambling meccas, Roger would wager coin in $50,000 and $75,000 increments without blinking. (I almost threw up while observing this during a NATPE confab many moons ago.) His carousing in the mid 1980s and early 1990s landed him in mild legal trouble (an arrest for cocaine possession and for stealing, briefly, a taxi cab) and a stint in rehab.

But as much as he liked to play, Roger was at heart a businessman and a tireless worker. Long after he and his company King World Prods. had made billions and changed the landscape of the TV biz with hits like “Wheel of Fortune,” “Jeopardy” and, of course, “The Oprah Winfrey Show,” he stayed on the road making sales calls to TV stations in markets large, medium and small. People marveled that Roger spent so much time on the road, making personal calls on station owners in markets that had less overall ad coin than King World’s annual revenues. Roger did it because he loved the game, the thrill of the hunt, and he had real affection for the broadcasting biz and the people in it.

He knew every TV station general manager from San Diego to Paducah, Ky., and all points in between, and he always blew away his sales targets with the depth of his knowledge of the competitive picture in each market. He prided himself on his mental Rolodex. He came in with a casual “Hi howya doin’ attitude” and a slap on the back (which would often make the recipient airborne) and then launch into a relentless but sophisticated sales pitch with hurricane-force wind.

It’s not for nothing that Merv Griffin was famously quoted as saying: “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.”