When you can say that you were there for the development of the largest and most successful sports network on two continents, you know you must have done something right. Herb A. Granath, chairman emeritus of ESPN, can lay claim to that fame, as well as a lifetime of other TV achievements.
During the 1980s he was one of the people instrumental in turning ESPN, then a startup channel in the backwoods of Connecticut, into what would become The Walt Disney Co.'s most reliable profit driver. At the end of the decade, Granath would have a hand in the founding of Eurosport, Europe's largest cable and satellite sports network.
In fact, Granath has had a hand in the founding or development of a slew of important networks, encompassing not just the two most successful sports channels in the world, but blue-chip networks such as A&E, History and Lifetime, while also taking ABC global as chairman of Disney/ABC International.
“I get bored easily,” Granath says. “Once something gets going and is doing all right, then I look and say, 'OK, what else can we do that could be some fun and maybe a challenge?'”
Even with his tenure at ESPN in the past, Granath still keeps on his toes, serving as co-chairman of Crown Media Holdings, the parent company of Hallmark Channel; chairman of the National Academy of Television Arts & Sciences (and former president of the International Television Academy); and vice chairman of Central European Media, which manages broadcast operations in Central and Eastern Europe.
In the early '80s Granath was tasked by ABC to develop a presence for the network in the still-nascent cable business. He says that trying to make deals was easier said than done, especially when operators were suspicious of the networks' motives.
“I had a tough time getting us into the cable business because I came from the network television business, and the networks were the enemy of cable in those days. In fact, the networks did everything they could to stifle cable,” Granath says. “I had to go around hat in hand saying, 'My job is to get ABC into cable. I'm not the enemy, I'm on your side.'”
Ray Joslin, currently Hearst's president of entertainment, recalls how the company he and Granath were tasked with creating, Hearst-ABC Video Services, was named on a coin flip. If it landed heads, it would be ABC-Hearst Video Services; if it was tails, it would be Hearst-ABC Video Services. It came up tails.
“What other way are you going to do it?” Granath says. “We were going to be 50/50 partners. Life is too short for distractions, and [choosing which name goes first] is a distraction.”
Still, Joslin says that the event showed what a straight shooter Granath was. Rather than let a silly thing like a name drag them down, he knew where the priorities for the company had to be.
“It's that kind of cooperation and trust and good faith that has permeated this relationship ever since,” Joslin says. He and Granath subsequently served on the boards of Lifetime and A&E for more than 20 years.
That trust was also present throughout Granath's time at ESPN. Steve Bornstein, now CEO of NFL Network, knew Granath well from Bornstein's time as president and CEO of the sports network.
“Warren Buffett says you can't teach a new dog old tricks,” Bornstein says. “[Granath] offered really good counsel and guidance when you needed it, and he also respected talent and gave people authority to execute against their talent.”
As the chairman of Disney/ABC International, Granath led one of the earliest charges into Europe, then a continent dominated by state-run media outlets.
“We were the first network to really go overseas and start to invest,” he says. “We believed that all television is primarily local, and the more local, the better. Eventually commercial television began to emerge in Europe, and so we went from country to country, found the best local production companies and bought into them.” It was there that he became a founding partner of Eurosport, pumping up the new network with programming from ESPN.
In between taking ABC into the cable world and Europe, Granath found the time to take them someplace a little closer to home—Broadway. “We were a 400-pound gorilla in the television business, but we were nothing in the theater world, so it figured that we should partner with someone who is a 400-pound gorilla in the theatrical business.”
With that, ABC partnered with The Shubert Organization, with Granath serving as a “one-man band” as the network's liaison to live theater. For more than 20 years, Granath managed ABC's theater investments through the company's Shubert partnership. Granath, who is married to actress Ann Flood and is an avid fan of live theater, had no qualms with that arrangement, which would net him two Tony Awards.
Granath's entry into the business of television was unexpected. A physics major at Fordham University in New York, Granath recalls seeing an ad on a school bulletin board in his freshman year for part-time work at nights as an NBC page, a program known as a springboard for industry leaders. “By the time I graduated, I had four years of what was then a relatively new business called television,” Granath says. “Physics seemed a little bit dull by comparison.”—Alex Weprin