As a young media buyer in the late '80s, Mark Lazarus was ahead of the curve, dabbling in product placement. Client Norelco wanted exposure for a new coffeepot, so Lazarus helped craft a deal with The Nashville Network to feature the coffeemaker on a TNN cooking show.
Today, as president of Turner Broadcasting System Inc.'s Entertainment Group, Lazarus is plotting programming and advertising initiatives for Turner assets like TNT, TBS Superstation and Turner Sports. In fact, TBS Superstation channel is partnering with Lowe's home-improvement stores for remodeling show House Rules.
A Westchester County, N.Y., native, Lazarus learned the TV ad-sales business early on. His father headed ABC Sports ad sales and was Fox Broadcasting's first ad-sales chief. During summers home from Vanderbilt University, Lazarus toiled for ABC as a relief engineer, cameraman and boom operator. That meant one summer on soap opera Ryan's Hope, another on the pro golf tour, driving around a camera mounted to a fork lift.
While he loved the excitement of production, Lazarus didn't like "being on someone else's clock, being told what to point at, what to do. I liked the idea of the business side."
After a stint at an ad agency, he returned to TV, selling sports for fledgling regional network SportsChannel America. He cut his teeth pitching the net's local and national sports, but, without ratings and true distribution numbers, the sales calls could be rough. So, when Turner, looking to start a sports sales group, came calling, Lazarus jumped at the opportunity.
"We had the NFL and the NBA, some NASCAR and some golf," he recalls. "It wasn't slow-pitch softball and bull riding. We had stuff people were watching. We had some built-in demand."
And a shrewd salesman knows demand keeps business healthy. After Lazarus took over as president of Turner Sports in 1999, Turner Sports hammered out rich deals for the NBA and NASCAR. Some efforts didn't work out, such as TV rights to the Olympics and the PGA tour, but Lazarus is proud of Turner's brand of sports deals. Turner's TV packages, he contends, are "more about marketing and partnerships with the leagues and how you are going to build that property."
That means an unorthodox partnership with NBC for NASCAR, with the broadcaster and TNT sharing half the season (Fox and FX have the other half). It also means grabbing a new six-year deal for the NBA with broadcast-network perks, including more playoff games, more exclusive games and the coveted All-Star Game.
Adding ad sales for all Turner's entertainment properties in 2001, Lazarus balanced his top-salesman job with new initiatives, like packaging and programming. A particularly proud moment: recruiting former NBA star Charles Barkley as a TNT's lead NBA personality. "It wasn't natural he'd come to us," Lazarus recalls. But he wined and dined Barkley at Bones, an Atlanta steakhouse, and, after sealing the deal, his new star picked up the check.
These days, Lazarus has a new challenge. Earlier this year, new Turner Broadcasting Chairman Phil Kent tapped him to head all of Turner's entertainment properties, overseeing ad sales and sports but also new areas like programming and marketing for TNT and TBS Superstation and for smaller nets Turner South and Turner Classic Movies.
A lot of his focus is on TBS Superstation, whose fringe block of acquired comedies is chugging along well while prime time is on the slide. For TNT, he is working with TBS/TNT chief Steve Koonin to find one or two original scripted series. Lazarus is using his sales background: Make a good deal and the right deal. "Fools rush in," he says, "We're going to be methodical and strategic."