Atlas Media Corp. founder and president Bruce David Klein framed a famous excerpt from Theodore Roosevelt's speech “The Man in the Arena” on the wall of his Manhattan office.
“It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better,” it reads. “The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood…”
Klein uses the quote as inspiration in a tough business. “Staying power as an independent producer is the most important thing,” he says. “I like to feel that we kind of win our success in the trenches, getting beaten up and bloodied; it's why I have [the quote on the wall]. I feel for him, about being bloodied in the arena.”
Klein should know a bit about staying power. He founded Atlas Media in 1989, at the age of 25, but already had a wealth of experience.
His introduction to the world of television came when he was an audience member on Wonderama, the popular children's show on Metromedia-owned stations. Sitting in the crowd, Klein saw that his favorite segment of the show was not as it appeared on television.
“I see these stagehands come on, they wipe clean the set, they put up podiums, they change the lighting a little, and that was the 'Go Go Basement,'” Klein says. “The first being of my emotion was incredible disappointment, but then I was like, 'Wow, this is really cool.'”
Attending SUNY Binghamton, he studied psychology and creative writing, but the television bug still got to him. While he was still in college, Klein formed the Harper Television Workshop Club, producing what he described as avant-garde television.
It was also at Binghamton that Klein worked overnight at WMGC, editing the commercial reels for the next day. On his last day, he stayed to talk to the GM about his thoughts on the station. They ended up talking all day. The conversation paid off; four months after Klein graduated, he was offered the position of program director for WMGC, earning $140 a week and becoming the youngest program director of any ABC affiliate at the age of 22.
Klein eventually made his way to Long Island, becoming program director at WLNY. It was there, after taking pitches from syndicators and being less than impressed, that Klein first considered the idea of producing his own shows.
So in 1989, at age 25, Klein took a credit card and $5,000 and founded Atlas Media (Klein chose the name because he enjoyed Ayn Rand's tome Atlas Shrugged, and also because the name made the company seem timeless).
The first program was Golfing America and the World, which sprung from his time at WMGC, when he realized there was an open slot for syndicating golf on Saturdays or Sundays. Klein says he called on hundreds of stations himself, and was able to clear it in 70% of the country.
It was his second show, Shark Terror, that really marked the beginning of Atlas as a cable non-fiction brand. The company had set up shop at NATPE, and Klein recalls that a cable network executive looking for programming ran down the row, saw the poster for the show and bought it on the spot.
Klein liked that kind of selling. “Instead of trying to remember the golf scores of a thousand different programming directors and schmoozing the ad agencies, I give a guy a tape and he gives me a check,” he laughs.
Klein locked in his company's focus on cable. “When we first started out, to the average person non-fiction or a documentary was PBS; incredibly slow-moving, uninspiring, purely educational,” he says. “We were part of the movement in the early '90s that transformed this hybrid of entertainment and information.”
While Atlas started as a company of one, it now has about 150 employees working on shows for several cable networks including Food, Fine Living's We, and the History Channel, but Klein picks one project a year to focus on personally.
For Breaking Vegas, a two-hour documentary about the super-smart MIT blackjack team, Klein wrote, produced and directed the movie. It was so successful that History ordered it to series.
Another key show from Atlas has been Dr. G: Medical Examiner, which premiered on Discovery Health in July 2004. The show became Discovery Health's top-rated program.
“The combination of Dr. G's character mixed with Bruce's storytelling talents made it a hit,” says Eileen O'Neill, president of TLC, who led Discovery Health at the time. “He's a guy I trust to come in with strong ideas. His track record demonstrates it. He never gives up on ideas, and he really wants what is best for a series no matter where ideas come from—the talent, the network, the audience.”
Klein has launched a digital division, creating Webisodes for History, Discovery and Lifetime, among others. Atlas has also formed its own YouTube page, using the name Stounder (as in, “astound” your senses). It will spin that off into a standalone site, Stounder.com, this fall.
In 2005, Klein was elected to the board of directors of NATPE, a decision that NATPE president and CEO Rick Feldman says was an easy one. “He's a remarkably giving, clear-headed, intelligent guy who really cares about the business and the people who work for him,” Feldman says. “He's not about the trappings. He is about making smart decisions.”
Running a full-time production company that turns out 150 hours of programming a year, Klein knows some won't make it. “Out of every 100 ideas we have, we greenlight one to spend money to make a pilot. For every 100 pilots, 20 get greenlit to series; for every 100 series that get picked up, maybe one will get to the next season. That long legacy of dead bodies along the way, to me, is a reason to celebrate.
“All those skeletons taught me something, taught me how to be a better producer, how to be a better pitcher,” Klein adds. “I always say that the harder you work, the luckier you get, and that is truer in this business than in almost any other business.”
To see a gallery of Fifth Estater caricatures, click here.