Rainbow Media Holdings President/CEO Joshua Sapan has mined his love of independent programming—and found cutting-edge ways to distribute it—for much of his career. He went from running a makeshift movie theater out of the back of his station wagon to becoming one of the most innovative programmers and distributors of independent content in the media world.
A 21-year veteran of Rainbow, he has led the company's targeted multi-platform brands, including AMC, IFC, WE tv, Sundance Channel and Voom HD Networks, to new levels of success. And along the way, he has become one of the industry's greatest innovators, even publishing a book on cable TV.
That is no surprise from the kid who grew up idolizing game show hosts while most kids were harboring aspirations to fight fires or crime. “When I was 10, when most people wanted to be firemen and policemen, my heroes were [game show hosts] Art James and Bill Cullen,” he says.
After graduating from the University of Wisconsin, where he majored in radio, TV and film and screened flicks for his friends in the school's film society, Sapan bought a station wagon and two movie projectors and set up itinerant exhibitions of films on college campuses. “This was before the advent of cable TV, ” he says, “and there was very little opportunity to see that sort of differentiated film stuff.”
Ralph Lee Smith's Wired Nation: Cable TV—The Electronic Communications Highway, a book about cable's impact on the television business, interested Sapan in the promise of localizing programming and targeting consumers through niche content. He took a job producing local shows for a cable system in New Jersey.
He calls the gig “the least glamorous position you could have gotten,” but it led to work as an advertising promotion manager for a local cable system and then to an eight-year stint at Showtime, ultimately in marketing, creative services and on-air promotion as the pay-cable network began to develop original programming.
“Josh has played a major role in the advancement of the cable industry,” says John J. Sie, chairman/founder of Starz Entertainment Group, who first worked with Sapan at Showtime more than 25 years ago. “One of the most remarkable qualities Josh possesses is that beyond his boundless creative energy, drive and focus, he is steely calm and balanced in a Zen-like fashion. He is an inspirational leader to us all.”
Sapan moved to Cablevision Systems Corp.'s Rainbow Media division in 1987 as president of the company's networks AMC and Bravo. The former was growing, with close to 9 million subscribers; the latter was still embryonic, with just over 970,000.
As he rose through the ranks to chief operating officer in 1991 and CEO in 1995, Sapan grew Bravo to more than 60 million subscribers and altered its focus from fine arts to pop culture, shaping it into the phenomenon it had become when NBC Universal bought it for more than $1.25 billion in 2002.
Sapan's tasks at Rainbow have varied from developing the Romance Classics network into women-focused WE tv to running Rainbow's regional sports channels, which the company recently sold.
He cites Rainbow's original programming, and the way in which its shows have energized the brands, as a highlight of his work. AMC's critical darling Mad Men, for example, just scooped up the Emmy for Best Drama, and the network this fall has brought back its follow-up Breaking Bad (which earned a Best Actor Emmy for Bryan Cranston).
IFC is thriving by programming series about all things independent, not just film. Rainbow is now operating two distinct brands with indie films at their core, after acquiring the Sundance Channel earlier this year. Sapan has also significantly grown the reach of the IFC Entertainment brand; it now includes IFC Films, which distributes movies to theaters and the On Demand platform; New York's IFC Center; and the feature film production company IFC Productions. And through VOD outlets IFC in Theaters and Festival Direct, the company offers films on-demand as they are released in theaters and is seeing real revenues from the effort—a significant feat during tough times for indie film.
“The complexity of video and the richness of the video experience can't be easily summed up,” he says. “There's much less uniformity and no simple answers. Because media changes rapidly and significantly at the hands of technology, the things that worked yesterday don't necessarily work tomorrow.”
Looking forward, Sapan aims to continue all of the channels' movement into original programming, as well as to accelerate international distribution and expand new media activities. He serves on the board of numerous industry organizations, including the International Radio & Television Society Foundation, and has received the National Cable & Telecommunications Association's Vanguard Award.
He also serves on the board of People for the American Way, WNYC Public Radio and the New School University and is a published author; his book Cable TV was published by Random House, and his poetry has appeared in more than 20 literary magazines.
Sapan cites Cablevision chiefs Jim Dolan and Charles Dolan, COO Tom Rutledge and Vice Chairman Hank Ratner as mentors. Says Rutledge: “Josh Sapan is a charismatic and talented executive who encourages excellence in everyone at the company. His vision, passion for the potential of new technologies and long-held belief in the value of targeted content have kept Rainbow at the forefront of the industry.”—Anne Becker