Syndication is a tough business that's only getting tougher, but don't tell that to Bob Cook, Twentieth Television's president and COO.
“He just sticks to it and grinds it out,” says Tony Vinciquerra, president and CEO of Fox Networks Group. “He will spend as much time and effort as necessary to get something done, even if that means he doesn't sleep.”
In the past 18 months, Cook and his group at Twentieth Television have made four key off-net sales: TV stations have been excited about Family Guy and How I Met Your Mother, and TBS has picked up both My Name Is Earl and Bones. Twentieth also acquired the rights for Fox's popular game show Are You Smarter Than a Fifth Grader?, produced by Mark Burnett Productions, for which Twentieth had to beat out several other bidders.
Still, the past year and a half is more of the same for Cook. In the course of his 34-year career, he's been involved in sales and marketing efforts that his official biography says have resulted in more than $10 billion.
Today, Cook recognizes that the market has become increasingly fractionalized and thus difficult, but he sees that as an opportunity. The fractionalized audience is tough to please, but that diverse crowd also creates some unusual hits. “I think the market has just responded to a broad and evolving consumer appetite,” he says.
Last year, Family Guy premiered on TV stations and rapidly became the second-highest-rated off-net sitcom in the genre—one of few hits syndication has seen lately. This fall, he's got a sales bonanza on his hands with How I Met Your Mother, starring Neil Patrick Harris and Alyson Hannigan. Just weeks after the syndicator announced the show was for sale, TV stations in top markets were in a bidding war over the show. Meanwhile, Lifetime swooped in to acquire the show's exclusive cable run.
“He's managed to do a great job in a challenging market,” says Gary Newman, chairman of Twentieth Century Fox Television. “I couldn't ask for a better partner in terms of taking the shows we produce and monetizing them on key platforms.”
Cook has been working in television for his entire career, starting out at Katz Television as a rep recruiting national and regional advertisers to buy time on TV stations. Although he had both interest and experience in acting and directing after graduating from Michigan State University, Cook knew it would be easier and more stable to get into TV from the business side. “I migrated from sales to marketing so that I could at least maintain the creative expression I desired,” he says.
Since then, he's been a marketer for the CBS owned-and-operated stations, worked for the now-defunct Association of Independent Television Stations (INTV) and run KECH (now KPXG) in Portland, Ore.
“What I liked about [the KECH] job was that it was so varied and diversified,” Cook says. “Every day there were different kinds of issues to deal with. I thought it was one of the best jobs I've ever had.”
Cook was lured back to Los Angeles with an offer to sell programs to TV stations; it was his first exposure to the syndication business. In 1985, he went to work for World Events, marketing animated shows to TV stations and then helping them market the shows to viewers. He did that for two years and then jumped to Guber-Peters Television, the production company behind shows such as The Dating Game and The Gong Show, as senior VP of marketing and advertising.
In 1990, Cook jumped to Columbia TriStar, now Sony Pictures Television, to head marketing and later, advertising sales. There he met Ed Wilson, now president of Tribune Broadcasting, who was head of sales. Together, Cook and Wilson sold and marketed shows such as Ricki Lake, Seinfeld and Married With Children.
“Bob was the Rock of Gibraltar,” Wilson says. “You always knew you could count on him.”
After five years at CTS, Wilson left to form his own company, Maxim Entertainment; a few months later, Cook went to join him. But that was 1995, the year the FCC removed restrictions on networks owning their own programs, which began a new era of vertical integration in Hollywood and snuffed out many independent syndication companies.
“That made it more and more difficult to remain independent,” Cook says.
Maxim ended up being sold to Group W, part of Westinghouse Broadcasting. Westinghouse in turn bought CBS in early 1996, and the new company ended up taking on the CBS name. Maxim and CBS's syndication company, Eyemark, were eventually integrated into CBS.
Cook stayed at the new company until 2000, when then-Fox TV Stations Chairman Mitch Stern asked him to head Twentieth Television. He's remained there ever since.
“Bob really is a jack of all trades. He's done a lot of things in his life: marketing, research, sales and programming,” Wilson says. “It makes him very well suited to doing what he's doing right now. At some point in his career he's done all the duties of all the people who report to him.”
While Cook's out in the market driving hard deals, at heart he's a big softie, say friends and colleagues. As Wilson puts it: “Bob's the guy that if something happens to you and you need to leave your family in someone else's hands, you want it to be him.”—Paige Albiniak
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