In Las Vegas last week, amid the annual industry bazaar known as NATPE, King World threw a top-shelf, seven-course dinner at the Four Seasons Hotel for a few hundred of the company's nearest and dearest. “It's like a billionaire's Bar Mitzvah party,” says an agent pal of mine. “But it's one where you don't have to write a check.”
Back in 1989, at a NATPE in Houston, I watched the brothers who then ran the company, Michael and Roger King, serenade their biggest star, Oprah Winfrey, with “My Girl.” The Temptations were singing backup. That's the sort of touch that has earned King World a well-deserved reputation at National Association of Television Program Executives conventions for lavish events that scream, “We're in show biz!”
This time, the entertainment is suitably platinum-plated, with Michael McDonald and Hall & Oates performing. But the real star, once again, is Oprah—who's even more radiant than she was 16 years ago in Houston. On stage with her, in a tastefully understated candy-apple red blazer and black shirt, is Roger King (brother Michael's role in the company faded when King World was acquired by CBS in 1999). Oprah talks with relaxed fondness of the support she had from Roger in her early days in syndication, when the legendary salesman was on the road selling her show. “People in Idaho said they'd rather see a potato in a chair than a black woman,” Winfrey says. But King told her it was “a minor problem” and he'd address it, along with innumerable other obstacles. And he did.
While the 2005 NATPE was livelier than it has been for the past several years—Oprah's appearance, her first at the event in a decade, was but one sign—it was still a far cry from the halcyon days of syndication, before government rules changed and gutsy independents like King World were absorbed into mega-media concerns. Now few really innovative independent projects get launched. And too many mediocre ideas get greenlighted—at a cost of millions—because the same companies that produce the shows distribute them and own many of the stations in the major cities where they run. Which raises the question: Would the corporate will exist today to fight for someone who was as much of an anomaly as Oprah was in 1986, when she made her national debut?
The morning of the King World party, another industry pioneer, Ted Turner, gave the NATPE keynote address. He damned Fox News Channel as the unofficial White House party organ. Then, in typical Turner fashion, he ramped up the invective to the headline-grabbing level, comparing the popularity of Rupert Murdoch's news machine to that of Hitler in the 1930s. Unfortunately, Turner's over-the-top Fox-bashing obscured his real message: that rampant media consolidation has gone way too far and is stifling everything from innovation to dissent.
The night before, I'd run into Turner at a cocktail party and got a preview of the morning's coming attractions. He was happy to talk about everything from his chain of eateries, Ted's Montana Grill, to the evils of media empires, including Time Warner, where he was once vice-chairman. “Nobody in the business creates networks anymore. They just buy 'em from one another,” he told me. “There's no room for someone starting out, looking to do something different.” During the conversation, Turner even gave a backhanded compliment to Murdoch, bemoaning a climate that leaves little room for “the next generation” of Ruperts or Teds to emerge.
I left Las Vegas wondering if those were simply the bitter views of a visionary who created so much and then got merged all the way to the sidelines? Or was he spot-on? When the wannabe Ted, Oprah and Rupert entrepreneurs at NATPE quizzed him about the opportunities he sees in the industry, Turner replied: Try the restaurant business; otherwise, get used to being small, unhappy cogs in a humongous media machine.