Richard Leibner and his longtime partner and wife, Carole Cooper, don’t have to think too hard about it when asked about the defining event of a long career in which they pioneered the business of TV news talent representation.
“That’s easy,” said the Brooklyn native Leibner, working out of the New York offices of United Talent Agency, which in 2014 bought N.S. Bienstock, the firm he and Cooper had steadily built up. “It was in 1983 when [then CBS News president] Edward Joyce attacked us in Variety.”
With Joyce’s ABC News counterpart, Roone Arledge, trying to build up his news division by luring away top talent like Diane Sawyer, Leibner was doing what any good agent would. He was helping to facilitate the plan, creating a kind of free-agent market for TV journalists where none had previously existed.
In a Variety story headlined “CBS News Declares War on Agent,” Joyce said he was “determined not to let the flesh peddlers affect the caliber of our broadcasts.”
Simply stated, the attack backfired.
Joyce’s comments were roundly criticized in the broadcast industry as excessive and overly personal. He was out of a job in two years, and he even later admitted that he regretted the “flesh peddler” dig.
Breaking New Ground
As for Bienstock and the principals behind it, they went next-level. Since 1964, when Leibner and his father, both accountants, purchased the accounting firm that just happened to have a lot of CBS News employees as clients, the firm had steadily, but rather quietly, built a reputation — and a client roster that at various times included Eric Sevareid, Charles Collingwood, Dan Rather, Mike Wallace, Ed Bradley, Morley Safer and Sawyer.
Longtime CBS News luminary Rather told The New York Times he didn’t even know what a talent agent did when he negotiated his first $17,500-a-year salary as a 29-year-old. Twenty years later, when Leibner carved out a 10-year, $22 million deal for Rather to replace the legendary Walter Cronkite on the CBS Evening News in 1981, the anchor, along with the rest of the broadcast news industry, had a pretty good idea what it was that Leibner and Cooper did for a living.
But it was Joyce’s attack, in Leibner and Cooper’s view, that burnished their reputation. “It proved to our clients how scared CBS News was of us at the time,” Leibner said.
“Leibner with a phone is like Mantle with a bat, Child with a spatula, Perlman with a bow,” read a 1989 profile in the Times, effectively illustrating N.S. Bienstock’s primacy during the halcyon days of the broadcast news era.
In the same Times profile, an unnamed correspondent lauded Leibner’s negotiating acumen.“Talk about inside information,” said the newscaster, a Bienstock client. “He can play network against network, reporter against reporter. How many times has he said to a network, ‘I’ll go easy on this negotiation, if you give me that one?’ ”
Nearly three decades later, after thriving through the successive tidal waves of cable news, the internet and then the social internet, Leibner and Cooper appeared ready to wind things down.
In September 2017, just three years after Bienstock was acquired by UTA, Peter Goldberg, a longtime agent under Leibner and Cooper, was tapped to head the agency’s news division, which now reps Anderson Cooper, Jake Tapper, Dan Abrams, Don Lemon, Dana Bash and Norah O’Donnell, among others. “The fact that UTA represents the most renowned and illustrious broadcasters working today is in large part a testament to the incredible business Richard and Carole have built,” UTA co-president Jay Sures said at the time, as Leibner and Cooper transitioned to be advisers to the agency’s board. To that, Leibner responded, “We’re not done.”
Indeed, speaking to B&C in a joint interview, both Leibner and Cooper still betray deep engagement in a TV news business they continue to help shape, still working full-time at UTA. “We have less pressure on us now that we’re not responsible for employees,” Leibner said. “But that has not changed our passion for the business or our involvement with our clients.”
So what makes a good on-air news personality in the social media era? While Leibner is renowned for his negotiating skills, Cooper has, over the years, discovered some of the biggest names in the modern news business. In Cooper’s eyes, the job hasn’t changed all that much. It’s still about being able to identify talent, nurture it and establish trust. As an example, she named CNN’s Anderson Cooper, who was struggling to find a niche at ABC when she got involved with his career.
Seeking Out Stars
“I have a very good eye for talent,” said Cooper, who also reps Megyn Kelly and Robin Roberts. “The first time I saw Anderson, I just knew.”
Another example: Former Fox News Channel primetime anchor Bill O’Reilly. He was working local news for KMGH Denver in the 1980s when Cooper found him. In 1996, when Roger Ailes called the agent and asked her if she knew of anyone “good” to help him get a new cable news channel off the ground, she told him she had a guy. “Appearance is more important than ever, but the skill sets haven’t really changed that much,” Cooper said, identifying the attributes she looks for.
Leibner and Cooper brought with them from Bienstock their law-educated sons, Jonathan and Adam, now UTA partners themselves.
Leibner conceded that we might not see another era like the one dominated by Rather, ABC’s Peter Jennings and NBC’s Tom Brokaw. With so many distribution mechanisms at hand, “that level of name recognition is so hard to achieve. The audience is always splintered,” he said.
But these are also exciting times. And while the news business may be fragmented across more platforms than ever, it still needs its stars.
“The Washington Post has said the president’s name 5,000 times,” Leibner said. “Ratings are up for everybody.”