King Speaks from his Throne

Roger King/King World

Either NATPE was made for Roger King, CEO of King World Productions, or just the other way around. Even in years like this one, where he won’t be unfolding any new syndicated product, he is a larger-than-life presence at the convention.

And even without new shows, King is sitting pretty. He just struck a deal with Oprah Winfrey, whose talk offering, distributed by King World, has been No. 1 for 18 years running, to develop more talk shows for King World. He hopes the first one gets to air by Sept. 2006.

Until then, King is going to sit tight on talk; he says he would rather hold off on launching a new show until he has one that has been conceived by the enormously influential Winfrey. (After all, it was exposure on her show that helped turn Dr. Phil, the guest, into Dr. Phil, the talk show success story.)

Roger King says he tries to run the syndication powerhouse based on advice that the elder King gave him years ago.

“My father always said your word is your integrity, and your integrity is your bond.”

Charles King founded King World in 1964, but passed away just eight years later. Control went to his six children, but Michael and Roger built King World. Since CBS merged with King World in 1999, Roger has been running the show alone.

At the beginning, King World licensed rights to a series of black-and-white films from the 1930s, known as the Our Gang comedies. They were then repackaged and distributed by King World as The Little Rascals.

Forty years later, King World is a far more sophisticated operation and a key Viacom division.

The groundwork was laid in the 1970s by first-run game shows such as Tic Tac Dough and Joker’s Wild. By the early 1980s, King World was ready for a bigger slice of the pie.

“We kept thinking, how could we make the business better?” says Roger King.

The brothers decided it was time to launch their own show. They took a risk by starting with a syndicated version of NBC’s Wheel of Fortune, which had failed in previous syndication attempts. Their version launched in 1983 on 59 stations, most of them in smaller markets.

Their gamble paid off, and Wheel quickly expanded to larger markets. Then King World developed Jeopardy!, which it licensed from Merv Griffin, as it had done with Wheel.

At the time, it was hard to imagine that they were giving birth to a pair of syndication behemoths; Wheel and Jeopardy! have long been among the two highest-rated first-run programs in syndication.

In the mid 1980s, King World expanded into talk, in the process giving Oprah Winfrey the audience that would turn her into one of the most influential women in the world. The Oprah Winfrey Show is in the midst of its 19th season and has been renewed through 2011. Next came Dr. Phil, hosted by Dr. Phil McGraw, one of a handful of hit talk shows launched over the past decade. Now in its third season, Dr. Phil is the No. 2-rated syndicated talk show and is sold through 2009.

Even without a new show, King is as busy as ever these days as he completes renewals for Oprah, Dr. Phil and other King World shows. He wants personal involvement on every deal—even if he has to get up at 5:30 a.m. to make it happen.

Some days on the job are better than others.

“I watch television a lot,” says King. “Some of the stuff I see on the air is revoltingly bad. It’s terrible.”