When Roger King passed away from a stroke on Dec. 8, television lost a legend who will be remembered for an unparalleled presence both inside and outside of the workplace.
King's rise to television royalty began in 1977 when he took over the family business as chairman of the board of King World, working alongside his brother Michael, selling old episodes of The Little Rascals. By the mid-'80s, he had built a powerhouse. King World sold to CBS for $2.5 billion in 2000.
In the process, he became syndication's most talked-about executive, for his exuberant friendliness, his business skill and his sense of showbiz. (Television executives reminisce about King in BC Beat, page 6.)
King, 63, CEO of CBS Television Distribution, would always say he did his job based on the principles adopted from his late father, Charles.
“My father always said your word is your integrity, and your integrity is your bond,” he once told B&C.
And according to those who did business with him, that was always the case.
“He's very honest and has tremendous integrity,” says KABC President and General Manager Arnie Kleiner.
King World's big move came in 1983 when Roger and Michael took Wheel of Fortune off NBC and launched it on 59 stations, none of which were in New York, Los Angeles or Chicago.
But like many of his projects, King made it work, and the next year he also turned Jeopardy! into a syndication hit, while at the same time taking his company public.
But it was in 1986, the year The Oprah Winfrey Show launched in syndication, that King World took off.
“Roger was one of the all-time passionate salesmen our industry ever saw. A lot of his success was built on relationships,” says Larry Wert, general manager of NBC-owned WMAQ Chicago.
“He was intensely loyal and competitive. I remember when he traded Wheel and Jeopardy! to [then-WLS Chicago General Manager] Dennis Swanson and the ABC stations for the right to syndicate Oprah. Everyone in the deal won and that lasted for decades.”
While names like Winfrey, Pat Sajak and Alex Trebek are stars today, it was King's sales prowess that made them into celebrities. Often called the best salesman ever to sell television shows, those who did business with him say he was like a cyclone that blew into a meeting full of confidence and figures to back it up.
“I truly loved the guy, and what was great about Roger was that through all his success and all the money he made, he was still that roll-your-sleeves-up, get-your-fingernails-dirty salesman,” says Steve Mosko, president of Sony Pictures Television, which produces Jeopardy! and Wheel ofFortune.
Along the way he accumulated several accolades, including induction into the Broadcasting & Cable Hall of Fame in 1992, and the National Association of Broadcasters Hall of Fame in 2004. At NATPE in 2000, King received a special tribute from the conference, where his parties were often the most lavish events of the week.
As successful a businessman as he was, he was also legendary for his out-of-work zeal for life. The term “larger than life” was used by many to describe his fast living both inside and outside the boardroom.
“If you call 300 people, you'll get 300 different stories,” says CBS Television Stations chief Tom Kane. But many people joked that most of those stories would be unprintable.
And according to many, the bombastic King always looked the part. “He was a character for sure, and some of his outfits were as loud as he was,” says Wert of WMAQ. “I would pay to see his walk-in closet.”
But what many never knew about King was his affinity for charity work, including extensive work with The Miami Project to Cure Paralysis, the world's largest, most comprehensive research center dedicated to finding more effective treatments and a cure for spinal cord injury paralysis.
“A lot of people didn't get to see the philanthropic side and his work for The Miami Project and the many other charities to which he contributed,” says Fox Television Network president Ed Wilson. “He was a good friend to a lot of people.”
King is survived by his wife, Raemali; daughters Kellie, Anna Rose and Lucinda; brothers Bob, Richard and Michael; and sisters Karen King and Diana King.