Bewitched by the tube

Ackerman finally follows father's footsteps, forging career in TV

When it was time for James Ackerman to begin his career, there was only one thing he knew: He didn't want to follow his dad into the television business. The son of producer Harry Ackerman, he had spent his youth watching his father produce successful programs including Bewitched
and The Flying Nun, accomplishments that helped him get a star on Hollywood Blvd.

"I was terrified of going into television because I didn't want to compete with my father's career," says Ackerman. "He had an office full of Emmys, a star on Hollywood Boulevard, and he was one of the great names in television between the late '50s and early '70s. How do you compete with that? My ambition was to do anything but television."

Today, Ackerman is CEO of OpenTV, one of the leading companies in interactive television. Obviously, somewhere along the line, fate brought his career to an industry far down on his "to-do" list.

After serving in the Coast Guard (where he spent time on a search-and-rescue team in Key West, Fla., and training others at Governors Island in New York City), Ackerman had a desire to go into advertising. His first job, however, was selling office equipment in New York. While it wasn't advertising, it did get him a foot in the door because, looking to get involved with major-brand advertising, he would send his résumé to every ad agency to which he sold equipment.

His persistence paid off with an interview with Gray Entertainment Media's head of the ABC Television account, and the 22-year old Ackerman found himself about to face his biggest fear: television.

"I had picked up how television works, sort of like the carpenter's son knowing about woodwork," he says. "I didn't mention my background in the interview, but it must have just come across because they offered me a job as an account coordinator. So I fulfilled one wish—to get into advertising—but I faced my biggest fear, which was to get into television."

Because he was involved with the ABC account, Ackerman spent plenty of time reading pilot scripts, including those for quality programs like Twin Peaks, Roseanne
and The Wonder Years. And, like any good carpenter's son, "I found that I actually wanted to move beyond marketing the shows to making them."

His next step was to a position at the Family Channel as director of original programming. He quickly learned that being a television producer demands a different skill set from being a marketer, and he found himself pulled back to marketing. So he returned to New York and joined Hearst Entertainment as vice president of development. While there, he was assigned to help develop History Channel International for A&E.

It was that move that led him to OpenTV. He helped negotiate with BSkyB for carriage of History Channel International. BSkyB took a liking to him and hired him as manager of its SkyVentures subsidiary, a holding company with interests in joint ventures such as History Channel UK. Another such venture was British Interactive Broadcasting, a 70-person company that he led as it ventured into interactive set-tops. BSkyB adopted the technology, then purchased the venture outright. "At that point, I was pursued by OpenTV, the tech company behind BSkyB's service," he says.

Ackerman still feels his father's influence. Bringing interactive TV to the consumer isn't much different from bringing TV channels, he says: Quality counts, and merely offering repurposed Web content won't win over consumers. He recalls the reaction his father had to watching less-inspired TV fare like That's Incredible. "Every time, John Davidson would yell, 'That's incredible!,' my dad would yell, 'That's crap!' He was a man who believed in quality television. Bewitched
was shot on film; it wasn't three-camera videotape on a cheap set. He would love what HBO is doing but hate the proliferation of reality television."