It’s hard to imagine today, but there was a time, many television seasons ago, when Roger King was wide-eyed at the prospect of attending his first NATPE convention.
When King elbowed his way into the crowded lobby of downtown Los Angeles’ Bonaventure Hotel in March 1978 to make his NATPE debut, he was a little fish (albeit one that stood 6-foot-4) in a big pond, the head of a family-run distribution outfit that handled regional sales for “Tic Tac Dough” and a few other gameshows. But he had no intention of staying that way for long.
Michael King, his brother and business partner, recalls that event as a turning point in the company’s fortunes. He also remembers having to poke his brother in the ribs a few times to get him to stop staring at prominent broadcasters and celebs.
“We were green,” Michael King recalls. “I remember telling Roger: ‘Look around. All the greatest broadcasters are here, and we’re part of it.’ … That was the beginning of the King brothers really starting to climb up in a big way.”
Roger King, who died Dec. 8 following a stroke at age 63, lived up to his own high expectations by leading his company, King World Prods., to unparalleled heights in the firstrun syndication biz within a decade of his first NATPE visit. King World became the home of syndication’s most profitable franchise, “The Oprah Winfrey Show,” plus two other franchises that endure to this day, “Wheel of Fortune” and “Jeopardy.”
Indeed, the King brothers and King World became synonymous with NATPE. The heady atmosphere of the confab in its wild-and-crazy heyday always ignited Roger’s innate salesmanship and competitiveness, Michael recalls. Roger was renowned for his encyclopedic knowledge of television markets, from the smallest in rural areas to the largest in urban centers, and for his mental Rolodex of TV station managers. He knew everyone in the television station world, which ensured him no shortage of hands to shake or backs to slap during the four-day conclave.
NATPE confabs also burnished the brothers’ reputation for living large and spending lavishly on parties and stunts, all part of the showmanship that the biz came to expect from the King brothers. The apex came in 1998, when King World booked New Orleans’ Superdome for a party and concert by Elton John. The $3 million bash was a monument to King World’s success — and to the brothers, literally, when gigantic Mardi Gras-style papier-mache puppets featuring their likenesses were wheeled out to herd the 4,000 partygoers to their seats for the concert.
After CBS bought King World for $3 billion in 1999, Roger could have easily moved into the mogul-emeritus lifestyle. But he didn’t. Roger loved the business, and the business of selling TV, too much to slow down. He became the CEO of CBS’ worldwide sales operation, giving him the things he’d sought throughout his career: a larger stage and new customers to conquer around the world.
“Roger was the best sales executive this industry has ever known,” Winfrey said in tribute to King after his death. “He was a larger-than-life partner who helped me launch two decades of success in syndication. I will never forget what he did for me. And this industry will never forget his legendary presence.”