A Risk-Taker Who Bet Right
Mort Marcus won big by syndicating South Park, House of Payne
By Paige Albiniak -- Broadcasting & Cable, 7/6/2008 8:00:00 PM
Who knew that one foul-mouthed little boy could prove so profitable? Apparently, Mort Marcus did.
Marcus had worked in television for a quarter-century when it crossed his mind that perhaps a show of which he was a huge fan—Comedy Central's South Park—could become a syndicated success. The show was considered such small potatoes—and potentially indecent—that Viacom, which owns Comedy Central and thus South Park, hadn't even considered selling it to TV stations.
“Larry Divney, who is retired now, was running Comedy Central at the time and he wanted to give the show to me to sell,” Marcus says. To acquire South Park, Marcus had to run a gauntlet of top-level TV executives: Divney first approached his boss, Tom Freston, who was then CEO of MTV Networks. Freston had to go up to his boss, then Viacom President/COO Mel Karmazin, who said that if Roger King and Joel Berman (who were running King World and Paramount Worldwide Television, respectively) each passed on South Park, Marcus could license the show.
Fortuitously for Marcus, King World and Paramount weren't interested. So Marcus snapped it up. “It was four animated boys who swore. It seemed hard to do,” he acknowledges. “But I had nothing to sell, so it looked different to me.”
Before he set out to pitch South Park, Marcus called an old friend and business partner, Ira Bernstein, who also had started his own company, Mercury Entertainment. “Mort called me up in late 2002 and said, 'I'm trying to get the rights to South Park. Do you think you'd like to sell that with me?' He brought me in as a partner with him on that, and we thought of it as a one-time opportunity,” Bernstein says.
“In the early days, we thought if we could just sell South Park, everything would be OK. Six years later, we're probably the happiest two guys in television right now, but we're not satisfied.”
Turns out, South Park was just the beginning for Debmar-Mercury, the combined name of Marcus' and Bernstein's two companies. After that show was successfully sold across the country, Debmar-Mercury acquired the rights to Revolution Studios' movie packages and other cable programs.
But the pair's next big break came when Mark Itkin, the William Morris agency's worldwide head of syndication, introduced them to Tyler Perry, the African-American screenwriter and producer who already had a huge following among an important and underserved demographic. Perry had a sitcom he wanted to produce, but he also wanted creative and financial control, so he was avoiding the major studios.
“It was really a brain trust of all of us sitting in the room,” Marcus says. “We devised a solution where if we created enough episodes, maybe we could take the decision out of the hands of a station's general manager and let the viewers decide. We knew if we got good enough ratings, stations would feel like they had to buy the show.”
So Perry took a risk and personally financed the production of 10 episodes of Tyler Perry's House of Payne that would run as a test on 10 stations for two weeks. In the end, the strategy proved pretty safe: Ratings for the show on some stations were fivefold that of the show it replaced. When Marcus and Bernstein took House of Payne out for sale, they had no problem first selling it to TBS in an exclusive deal some believe was worth $100 million and then clearing it on stations. House of Payne will be the only sitcom to premiere in syndication this fall.
“I think the Tyler Perry deal is one of the really scrumptious deals that anyone has done over the past few years,” says Rick Feldman, president of NATPE, who has known Marcus since Feldman was general manager of KCOP Los Angeles. “It's very emblematic of the way they operate. They've succeeded in really difficult times in the domestic syndication market.”
This summer, Debmar-Mercury hopes to work that same magic with The Wendy Williams Show, a talk show featuring popular New York deejay Williams that they are test-running on Fox stations WNYW New York, KTTV Los Angeles, KDFW Dallas-Fort Worth and WJBK Detroit.
“One of the things that is really bad about the syndication marketplace is that stations and distributors make commitments to new shows for 104 weeks, even though you will likely know by week six if the show's a failure,” Marcus says. “The audience goes away and starts sampling other media, and when you put a new show on 52 weeks later, you wonder why you can't get a big audience again.
“We're not trying to pretend that Wendy Williams is the answer. If it works, that's amazing. If it fails, then it's off the air in six weeks. For a company like ours, time is worth more than money.”
Even after all of that, Marcus says his biggest success was getting out of the shipping department at a post-production company called Vidtronics and into a sales job at Gold Key Entertainment, a sister company that distributed TV shows.
WORKING IN 'THE VAULT'
“I was working in a place called the vault where you actually made boxes,” he says. “I thought, 'This cannot happen,' so I got up the guts to go to the president of the company and I developed a relationship with his assistant. I finally went to the president and said, 'I work 4 to midnight, but if you let me come in an hour earlier and work for you, you don't have to pay me.' He took me up on that. Two months later, he gave me a job selling movies to airlines.”
Marcus quickly parlayed that into other duties, and by 1981, he was VP of television sales for The Samuel Goldwyn Co. He became president of Colex, a partnership between Columbia and Grey Advertising, in 1985, and then worked his way far up the Disney chain in several executive positions from 1989 through 2002, ending with a two-year stint as chairman of Miramax TV and Video. Not liking it there spurred Marcus to go out on his own, and Debmar was born.
“I'd like to say he's relaxed a little bit more, but that's completely untrue,” Bernstein says. “In spite of our success, he hasn't changed at all.”
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