The World View from the King

Roger King has it all—and that includes Oprah and Dr. Phil

By now, the history of King World is a legend in the TV business. It's not quite rags to riches, but as near to it as those stories ever get. In the early 1970s, the King brothers—Michael and Roger—inherited a struggling syndication business from their father. It had exactly one show in its arsenal: The Little Rascals.

By the time it signed on to distribute The Oprah Winfrey Show
in 1986, King World was already a major syndication force. That's because, by joining with Merv Griffin in the 1980s to syndicate Wheel of Fortune,
King World had landed the hottest game show on TV. Later, Jeopardy
and Inside Edition
and now Dr. Phil
have kept King World one of TV's most powerful distributors of syndicated product.

At the National Association of Broadcasting convention in Las Vegas this week, Oprah Winfrey receives the distinguished service award. And Roger King is inducted into the NAB's prestigious Hall of Fame.

With both King and Winfrey in the spotlight, B&C talked to Roger King about the future of King World, Winfrey, and the TV business.

You've had success through the years but also your share of Rolondas. Why does Dr. Phil work while others don't?

Number one, Dr. Phil [McGraw] was on Oprah Winfrey, on an existing show, and was spun out of the No. 1 show in the history of television.

Where we made a mistake at King World is putting people on who have never done it before. And when you do that, the danger of failing becomes greater. We just fail [with some shows]. It's tempting to try to do a show; there are some very talented people out there. But it's very hard to just come out and do it. Dr. Phil was on the air for a year perfecting his show [with Winfrey], and then it went on its own time period. Consequently, we had a winning formula going in.

But there are some naturals. Like Oprah herself. Looking back at it now, do you remember? What made you pursue Oprah?

The main competitor at that time was Phil Donahue, and he was more like a professor. Oprah jumped through the TV set. She looked through the TV set and talked to the viewer.

My opinion was, "Nobody's doing that. That will really work." I got tapes of her first, and then I met her. We were so impressed with her, we immediately signed the deal.

She worked really hard. You can't do television and not be a hard worker. I don't care if you sing, I don't care if you dance.

She would do a show, get on a commercial flight, go to a city and do promos all day long, get back on a plane, go back to Chicago, get back on a plane the next day, and go to some other city.

What has made Oprah so successful over 18 years, and do you have a favorite show or two?

It's her whole direction. She's helped all those people in Africa. She helps people all the time. You have to have the spirit in you to do it, the passion in you to do it, and of course the ability to do it. And she has all three.

And she gave all those Christmas gifts to those thousands of orphans in South Africa.

I cried on that one.

First, she signed a "final" deal through 2006. Now she has signed through 2008. How long do you think she's going to keep going?

She'll go as long as she's having fun, as long as she feels she's doing something for mankind. I think she'll go on forever.

Oprah is starting to be dragged into the whole indecency furor. One FCC member was flogging her for doing shows with too much sexual content.

She was doing things, and they were taking it out of context. She was doing things to talk to the kids, to talk in their language. It wasn't exploitive.

What do you will happen with this indecency issue in general?

I think it's going to wind up in the courts. I don't know what will happen. I hope and pray that the right thing happens, because I love the business.

You've obviously been at it long enough. What have you learned about the business that has caused you to change some of the ways go about things?

I found out that using outside talent—actors, dancers, singers—and trying to develop them into talk shows is really a very difficult process and usually fails. And the bodies of failed talk shows and game shows are all along the road, shows that came from me and all the other companies.

But as we mentioned, Dr. Phil was spun out of Oprah, and that works. Does that mean there is a show in the future for Nate Berkus, who's becoming an Oprah regular on shows about design and style, maybe to replace Martha Stewart?

We'd love to develop a show. It's not fully developed yet. When Oprah gets finished with her development department, I think there might be something.

The Martha Stewart trial must have bothered you.

I'm disappointed for her and for the show, but more for her.

I feel very bad for her. I think she's being tortured to the highest level possible. I'm not commenting on her innocence or guilt. I'm just saying that the punishment is just staggering. She's lost hundreds of millions of dollars, the threat of going to jail.

And all of this for a minor crime. I'm not getting into the judicial system, but I think she's been punished really a lot, and she's got my blessing all the time. She's a very bright, tough woman. I think she'll get through it.

What's the status of Living It Up! With Ali & Jack? You have two-year deals with the stations.

King World has never held broadcasters to drag them through a failure, and right now it's a failure. We got rid of all the people that we originally hired, and we got rid of some other people who we hired subsequently. Now we have a woman in there who's doing a helluva good job. If this show right now on the air was the first show back in September, this show would be a hit. So we're evaluating the whole thing.

It's hard to get people to pay attention twice, though.

Exactly. The likelihood [of its survival] is not very good, but we haven't made a decision. But our inkling is to work with the broadcasters. We're not going to hold their feet to the fire for a show like that, but, in the next couple of weeks, we'll make a decision.

At NATPE this year, it seemed a lot of syndicators were caught unaware. There were so many cancellations, and stations could not always find the programming they needed.

I think the crop is not very good. It happens every year with cancellations.

There were no new relationship shows, no new game shows. Why didn't syndicators bring more content to the market this year?

The cost. Also, it's very difficult because there are not a lot of clearances. They are all difficult clearances. There is no clear-cut access clearance, no clear-cut fringe clearance.

Which of the new syndicated shows have the best chance of being successful?

With the incumbents in there, I don't think the ones that are out are going to be very successful. They're all over the board: mornings, afternoons, bad, weak stations, strong stations.

Do you now wish you had brought more to NATPE this year?

No. We're happy with what we had. I was renewing Everybody LovesRaymond, which has been very successful. You try to keep these things separate from all the other things because they are different, different pitches.

If I go in and try to pitch you a game show, a talk show, and a sitcom, you're going to get thoroughly confused.

So we really singled out Raymond. It was time for a second cycle, and we devoted the whole NATPE to that.

Most of the other shows were all renewed. Wheel
and Jeopardy
to 2008, Oprah
to 2008, Phil
to 2006, Inside Edition
to 2008. CSI
and CSI: Miami
are also sold to cable networks.

We're in development for this other idea for 2005. We want to take a deep breath and develop it properly and bring it out the right way.

What happened with Hollywood Squares?

It ran its course. It petered out through various problems after six or seven years, but that's a good run.

People think you have to go 20 years because of what we did. But, if it was a hit for two or three years, that's a hit. When you have it for six years, that's a monster. There haven't been any real hits in access since Wheel of Fortune
and Jeopardy
and ET.

We were doing great in the beginning. It wore out. Some things were our mistakes. The writing wasn't as good.

I was on it in January. I was the center square.

But how come Wheel and Jeopardy have not gotten tired?

Wheel of Fortune
has longer legs because it's Hangman, and Harry Friedman, who is the producer of those shows, is one of the geniuses of our business. We're always doing research, always touching it, always evolving. If you saw the original Wheel of Fortune
and looked at last night's show, you wouldn't believe it. It's a completely different show.

I watched them [Wheel
and Jeopardy
] every night, and I stopped watching them for a while. I'm back to watching both of them every night, and I love them. On Jeopardy
, the contestant stays on until he gets beat now [instead of "retiring" after five wins]. He can stay on there a month and win a million dollars. That has an attraction.

You've seen NATPE grow and wither. What's the future? What role should NATPE play?

It should be a free-flowing networking of the whole business—television producers, writers, talent, new ideas. … Down the road, there are going to be multichannels and a lot more reason for programming and a lot more reason for NATPE. …

Right now, you look at the traditional places to sell your shows. In the future, it's going to be multichannels, and multichannels have to have programming, or it's not watchable. It's going to expand programming's role.

You're going to see, down the road, in the near future, a guy goes to NATPE and sells programming to one of the other channels in Chicago, not one of the traditional channels, because they all have multichannels. ...You might even see a multichannel network.

Network television is going more toward a 52-week year. Will syndication follow suit?

It's all about money. Production is getting so expensive, you have fewer titles. But it all depends on supply and demand. If there are a lot of failures and stations can't put up with the failures because economically they're losing, they're going to pick up more shows for January.

I also think you might have some shows that aren't designed to go 52 weeks but just come out for the ratings periods. ... I'm working on one that fits that genre, which I can't talk about.

With all the fragmentation going on, won't syndicators end up making less money on shows?

Syndicators, television networks, and station groups are going to have to develop bigger shows. Some of them will. But you have to keep working. The reality stuff is a flash in the pan. It's going to come out and do its number and have an audience. It will dissipate. I don't believe it has staying power whatsoever.

They are using the lower denominator on these shows now, and I think they will dissipate. The Jerry Springer
type shows will dissipate. The dating game shows, they have a spot, and they have flash, and they last for two or three years, and then they go away.

What types of shows do you believe will be successful in the long run?

Quality talk shows. Talk shows have been on since television started. Game shows have been on television starting in the '50s.

The taste of people is not going to go that crazy that they will go out into outer space. Court shows seem to have found a niche. But I think they have gone down further [in quality].

You sold out to CBS a while ago. How much has consolidation changed the way you've done business?

We felt it was a good way to take a little company that had a lot of cash and develop it into a very solid arm that will go on forever. [Stations are] going to have to buy programming. And [Viacom Vice President and COO] Mel Karmazin and [CBS Chairman and CEO] Leslie Moonves have allowed me not just to be an incubator to the CBS stations. I sell to anyone. I renewed Oprah Winfrey
with ABC, Wheel
and Jeopardy
with ABC. Dr. Phil
is with CBS; NBC has bought Dr. Phil
in some markets. We've sold Tribune Raymond
, and now we've sold Fox.

It's got to be more difficult, though. Because of consolidation and the fact networks now produce their own shows, in syndication, NBC stations will buy NBC Enterprises' product and ABC stations will buy Disney product, and so on.

I think they are making some mistakes. I think they ought to be not just looking at their own company but ought to be looking at the industry as opposed to one channel. I don't think any one company can fill these stations up. It's just a massive job. The idea is for a station to buy the best programming possible, not just to put it on because you own it or produce it. I think that's a mistake.

Over the 30 years you've been in the business, what are your proudest accomplishments?

We developed some shows people liked and watched. We helped change the industry from the barter, from the way we promote the shows, just many, many areas. And I'm very proud of the way King World is very much a top competitor to all these huge studios. ... I did it honestly. I know the business.