Byron Allen’s booming and diverse media empire got a bit bigger earlier this month, when Allen swung a deal worth close to $300 million for 11 TV stations. Being a media maven has been a unique shift for Allen, who got his start as a comedian and was a host on the NBC variety show Real People beginning in 1979.
His portfolio extends from Hollywood to the Heartland. Last year, Allen’s Entertainment Studios acquired The Weather Channel in a blockbuster deal, and in May it picked up Bayou City Broadcasting, comprising four stations. Days before the Bayou City acquisition, Allen was a partner in Sinclair Broadcast Group’s deal for 21 regional sports networks owned by The Walt Disney Co.
Allen said ES, which also produces films and has cable networks and syndicated programs, “will continue to aggressively look” for more acquisitions.
‘He Just Never Tires’
Some were stunned to see Allen emerge as a burgeoning baron. But those who know Allen well, not so much. “I’ve never seen anyone so goal-oriented — he just never tires,” said Art Moore, WABC New York VP of programming, who has known Allen for decades. “His energy is boundless, and it just permeates the room.”
Allen was born in Detroit in 1961. His father worked at Ford Motor Co., and when his parents divorced, Byron and his mother, Carolyn, went to Los Angeles in 1968. A visit with family ended up with Byron and his mother staying. Carolyn became a tour guide at NBC, which gave her son unique access to the network. Allen would hang out in the NBC parking lot in Burbank, waiting for Johnny Carson to pull up. The two would go over the previous night’s Tonight Show.
Allen recalls watching The Flip Wilson Show and Sanford and Son shoot, along with specials from Bob Hope and George Burns. “NBC became a playground for me, and I just fell in love with the business of making television,” he said.
Allen started his standup career as a teen, performing at The Comedy Store (“I thought it was a supermarket,” Allen said on a recent episode of Marc Maron’s podcast, WTF) and other joke joints. That led to writing jokes for Jimmie Walker, who starred on the CBS comedy Good Times and who also had young comics Jay Leno and David Letterman in the writers’ room. “Letterman would say, ‘Tell his mom not to worry — we’ll have cookies and milk for him,’ ” Allen recalled with a smile.
According to Leno, Allen’s role often involved telling the comics what teens were watching, listening to, laughing at. “He was a sharp kid, really smart,” said Leno. “To this day, I still smile and think of Byron like he’s 15.”
Allen was able to parlay his relationship with Carson to a performance on The Tonight Show when he was 18. “He gave me a phenomenal introduction because he had seen me around — he knew me,” said Allen.
A week later, he was on Real People. Allen also toured with musical acts, including the Pointer Sisters and Smokey Robinson, and he opened for Whitney Houston at Carnegie Hall.
Allen, stating that show business is really “business show,” soon shifted to creating programs and selling them to stations. Entertainment Studios shows include Kickin’ It With Byron Allen, America’s Court with Judge Ross and Cars.TV. He recalled selling from his dining room table, and mentioned Al Masini, a B&C Hall of Famer too, as a mentor. “He was a terrific friend, almost like a father figure,” said Allen.
Relationships Allen built way back then serve him today. The October deal for 11 stations was with Bob Prather, former CEO of the Gray Television group. The pact for the Disney regional sports networks stemmed from Allen’s relationship with Sinclair.
Prather said Allen could sell anything to anyone. “Byron is a man of his word: He does what he says he’ll do,” Prather said. “When he decides he wants something, he figures out how to go and get it.”
Arthur Hasson, chief operating officer of original programming at Sinclair, has known Allen for over 35 years, first as a competitor when Hasson was a distributor and then as a buyer. “Byron is a passionate individual whose foresight and dogged determination have resulted in a textbook American success story,” he said.
The ranks of minority owners in local broadcast are woefully lacking, and Allen has emerged as its vital figure with the acquisitions of Bayou City and Prather’s USA Television.
“NAB is delighted that Byron Allen continues to expand his footprint into local television station ownership,” said Dennis Wharton, National Association of Broadcasters executive VP. “We’re encouraged that Byron will lead a station group that reflects the diverse communities that we serve.”
Staying With Weather Stories
Allen is also bullish on his $300 million acquisition of The Weather Channel last year from Blackstone Group, Bain Capital and Comcast. When Hurricane Dorian hit North Carolina in August, Weather Channel went head to head with the cable news giants. When a mass shooting happened in Midland and Odessa, Texas, on Aug. 31, Allen said, the cable competition shifted focus.
A Weather Channel ad laid out the numbers. The Weather Channel averaged 237,000 viewers 25-54 on Aug. 31, with Fox News at 163,000 and CNN at 131,000. A day later, Weather averaged 471,000, Fox News 158,000 and CNN 152,000. On Sept. 2, Weather had 516,000, Fox had 228,000 and CNN 226,000.
“It showed the importance and uniqueness of Weather Channel, staying focused on Dorian when the other news outlets had to pivot,” Allen said. “The team did a phenomenal job on the coverage. We couldn’t be happier.”
Allen has three children with his wife, Jennifer. He loves being the rare independent program owner, station owner and network owner. Of Weather Channel, he said: “The fact that this network really does help protect and save lives and property, that’s a huge responsibility. We embrace it and we appreciate the opportunity to shepherd it.”