It didn't take Mark Itkin very long to figure out he didn't really want to be a lawyer. Coming out of UC Berkeley's Bolt Law School in 1978, he spent three years as an associate in the music department of Los Angeles law firm Mitchell, Silberberg & Knupp but gave it all up for the opportunity to work in the mailroom at the legendary William Morris Agency.
Twenty-two years later, Itkin is still there, though no longer in the mailroom. As executive vice president, worldwide head of syndication, cable and non-fiction programming, he is responsible for some of TV's most groundbreaking shows, including MTV's Real World, CBS's Big Brother, NBC's Fear Factor and UPN's WWE Smackdown!.
"I wasn't happy being a lawyer," Itkin said, "because I didn't think it tapped into my creative skills and what I was best at."
As an agent, he looks at the TV market and determines what kind of shows broadcast networks, cable networks and syndicators need most. He recently realized that there was no broadcast alternative for younger viewers during early-fringe hours. With Ryan Seacrest a client, he put together a show starring the American Idol host that would bring the kids back to broadcast from MTV's Total Request Live and other cable draws.
"I have to be very smart and discriminating about putting the pieces together and what I package," Itkin said. "I look at the marketplace and see what's missing and then find the strongest talent to fill those holes."
TV executives like working with him because he's very hands-on, they say, always available if there's a problem. They also trust him.
"There's a genuine sincerity about Mark's love of the projects and his wanting to make them good," said CBS Chairman and CEO Leslie Moonves, pointing out that Itkin is so involved that he personally attended the finale of the network's Big Brother 4 last month. "He doesn't have a phony bone in his body."
Echoed Roger King, CEO of CBS Enterprises and King World Productions: "He's a man of great integrity who's got an intimate knowledge of the business,"
Though mostly focused on first-run syndication, cable and reality programs, Itkin has also had his hand in some scripted programming, most notably The WB's Buffy the Vampire Slayer, subsequently on UPN. And he helped package this fall's Tarzan, The WB's biggest hope for the season.
Itkin has built his career by going where others weren't. Even at UCLA, majoring in communications, he wrote his thesis on daytime television and syndication. When he got to William Morris, he pursued that interest into syndication and cable, two areas other people weren't interested in because they weren't as glamorous as network prime time and feature films.
Itkin's first big deal was for Showtime in 1984, when he sold the premium cable network a July 4th Beach Boys concert at the Washington Monument. He went on to put together shows such as Comedy Central's South Park and The Man Show, MTV's Loveline, Nickelodeon's Jimmy Neutron and Little Bill, and first-run syndicated shows such as People's Court, Donny & Marie, The Ricki Lake Show, The Caroline Rhea Show and Beyond With James Van Praagh.
"When I was a little kid, my grandmother loved game shows, and she would take me to sit in the audience," Itkin said. That's where I also got a love for television. When I started, I signed game-show hosts and game-show packagers and directors. I built a really good business that way.
"I grew up in a real middle-class neighborhood in the San Fernando Valley. There were no snobberies about it," he said. "My parents let me watch anything I wanted to watch, and I liked to watch everything. Growing up in a middle class environment, I have a very populist sensibility. I understand what the fly-over states want to watch."