Selling the concept was actually easier than Bernstein and Marcus thought it would be. Both Fox and Turner were immediately interested, and Steve Koonin, who was president of Turner Entertainment Networks at the time, was insistent that he get first rights to air the series. To secure that, Koonin agreed to pay $100 million upfront for 100 episodes of Tyler Perry’s House of Payne.
“The worst case scenario was that we would have original programming we could put in any daypart, and if we got lucky we would have something special with which we would be able to tap a new audience that advertisers were trying to talk to,” said Koonin, who is now CEO of the NBA’s Atlanta Hawks. “The volume of content we were acquiring was the way we could justify the risk. It didn’t make sense to just do 10 — if we were going in, we thought, ‘Let’s go in and be the dominant player.’ ”
The experiment worked brilliantly, ultimately earning upwards of $1 billion for Turner, and launched three Tyler Perry shows for TBS. Under that model, Debmar-Mercury went on to produce and distribute such shows as Are We There Yet? with Revolution Studios and Ice Cube and Anger Management, starring Charlie Sheen, for FX.
After doing the Tyler Perry deal, Marcus and Bernstein realized they needed more funding if they were going to continue to grow.
Marcus had a good relationship with Michael Eisner from his days at Disney so he called him up.
“Once you have that conversation, you put yourself in play,” Marcus said. Before the two knew it, they had four offers on the table.
Just as Marcus had high-powered connections, so did Bernstein. He went out to lunch with his former boss, Lionsgate chairman Jon Feltheimer, to discuss Debmar-Mercury’s situation. By that afternoon, Feltheimer also had made an offer. Ultimately, Marcus and Bernstein elected to go with Lionsgate, which today still owns 50.1% of the company, while Marcus and Bernstein own the other 49.9%.
“Buying Mort and Ira’s company 12 years ago was one of the best business decisions I’ve ever made,” said Feltheimer. “Not only are they two of the greatest television sales executives in the business, but they’re great partners and savvy entrepreneurs who find ways to reinvent their business every day. They have contributed enormous value to our company, and I look forward to the next exciting chapter in our collaboration.”
Now, Debmar-Mercury was ready to get into a more expensive tier: original first-run programming. They found a New York-based talent in outspoken drive-time DJ Wendy Williams, and applied the model they created with Tyler Perry. The Fox-owned television stations, which had tested House of Payne, agreed to test a talk show for six weeks over the summer of 2008. The show did well enough to head into national syndication and it’s still on the air today.
“It was 2006 when they came calling,” Williams said. “I had spoken to a few different companies over the years during my DJ career. People were calling me. I wasn’t even thinking about a talk show. But with Mort and Ira, I felt it.
“My husband and I sat down with them,” she said. “That was the first time that they ever met me and we got right down to it. ‘I like you. You like me. I trust you. You trust me and let’s go!’”
That deal also did something else: It solidified the testing model in first-run syndication. Today, almost every new show first airs in a test before it’s rolled out in national syndication.
“What makes them good is they’re both creative and very focused on businesses at the same time,” said Jack Abernethy, CEO of the Fox Television Stations and B&C’s Broadcaster of the Year in 2018. “New business models are so important … and if you have an issue or a problem, they’re the first people you go to because they’re really thoughtful guys. If you go back and look at their history, they found opportunities where others didn’t see them, and they don’t always agree which makes for a very interesting and high-level debate on a variety of issues when you talk to them.”
Keen Eyes for Talent
Also in 2008, Debmar- Mercury acquired the rights to distribute Family Feud from FremantleMedia North America.
That show’s ratings had been trending downward, so in 2010 the partners agreed to try a new host. Debmar- Mercury’s suggestion? Steve Harvey.
Within a month of premiering with Harvey in 2010, it was clear the ratings were heading up. By 2015, Family Feud had surpassed the long-running game champs, Wheel of Fortune and Jeopardy!, as the toprated syndicated game show.
“In their long and accomplished careers, they have distributed and produced some of television’s most beloved programs, including Family Feud, which I’ve had the pleasure of partnering with them on for many years,” FremantleMedia North America CEO Jennifer Mullin said.
This fall, Debmar-Mercury is premiering one of only two new first-run shows in syndication: Caught in Providence, starring 81-year-old Municipal Court judge Frank Caprio. It also went back to its roots and sold a show produced by Michael Eisner’s Tornante Company, the off-Netflix BoJack Horseman, to Comedy Central.
As always, the innovative company has several projects in the works, including a comedic talker starring Finesse Mitchell and Jaime Pressly and a talk show starring Jerry O’Connell. It’s also partnering with Will Packer Media on a celebrity newsmagazine, called Central Avenue, and a 22-episode drama on OWN, titled Ambition, that will premiere in early 2019, while working to launch Schitt’s Creek into syndication off of Pop.
“Syndication is the only business in television where you can still own your product,” said Bernstein. “We’d rather take a chance and do shows that we really believe in.”