Steve Smooke, a syndication-sales-executive-turned-TV-agent at Creative Artists Agency, didn’t always hobnob with the likes of Tom Cruise, Tom Hanks or Gwyneth Paltrow—a few of CAA’s A-level stars—at big Hollywood parties. He wasn’t always pitching Aaron Spelling’s next project to the TV networks.
Smooke used to sweat it out in the slightly less glamorous syndication arena. In 1988, as vice president of Western sales at Genesis Entertainment, he was trekking to TV stations around the country to sell reruns of Highway to Heaven, short-lived court entry The Judge and year-long Grudge Match, in which couples got into a boxing ring to settle their disputes.
But Smooke insists he would not have attained his dream job as an agent without his syndication background: “You really get the flavor of the television business when you’re in the general manager’s office in Portland or Phoenix or Denver.”
That experience gave him a taste for what Middle America savors. Smooke, who initially focused on syndication, cable and reality projects at CAA before shifting into prime time network series in 1995, explains: “I bring a different sensibility to the table. Hollywood is not America necessarily.”
Garth Ancier, Turner Broadcasting System’s executive VP of programming and former producer client at CAA, adds that Smooke’s syndication know-how “helps him understand the back-end value of TV, the real business of TV.”
And it doesn’t hurt that “he’s not a slickmeister. He’s very honorable,” adds Ancier, who executive-produced The Ricki Lake Show.
Currently, Smooke and partner Brett Loncar spend much of their time packaging shows for The WB, handling its two top-rated series, 7th Heaven and Charmed. Smooke is also involved with WB series Roswell, The Steve Harvey Show, Hype, The Jamie Foxx Show and Sabrina, the Teenage Witch.
On deck for possible rollout next year on The WB, courtesy Smooke and Loncar, are pilots by comedian Cedric the Entertainer, MTV personality Bill Bellamy, and country-music act The Clark Family Experience.
Susanne Daniels, co-president of WB Entertainment, considers Smooke “a great pal” and even recommended that her brother, comedy writer Warren Lieberstein, sign with him.
Even so, Smooke has had his share of missteps. The very first program that he sold as an agent was 1991’s late-night talk strip The Whoopi Goldberg Show, which at the time was the biggest deal in syndication history, with Goldberg reportedly earning an unprecedented $5 million upfront. But the show debuted poorly and lasted just one season.
“Sometimes we’ll take out shows that we think are slam dunks. Sometimes they are, and sometimes they’re not,” Smooke notes. But today, “people would kill for the 2.0 rating we did in 1991.” Moreover, he says, Whoopi raised the profile of its distributor Genesis Entertainment, giving it better positioning when it eventually merged with New World Entertainment.
But the “the beauty of coming from syndication,” he says, is that it has helped his work in the current reality-TV trend. Stations, he points out, were picking up the game shows and alternative relationship formats long before the networks got into the act.
Recently, Smooke linked up Cops producer Bert Van Munster (his client of eight years) with CAA client Jerry Bruckheimer (Pearl Harbor) to do The Amazing Race, CBS’ expected Survivor follow-up, in which 11 couples will race around the world in 30 days.
Smooke tries to dispel the usual image of agents. “There is the old slick-agent stereotype,” he says. “But I think that, in today’s world, everyone just has to cooperate. There’s always the challenge of getting the best possible deal for your client, without killing someone in the process. But if you accomplish that, you’ll do all right.”