LEFT COAST BIAS: King of Candor

By every account, Roger King was unparalleled as a salesman. He was also one of the best damn quotes in the television business.

And at a time when financial and Wall Street pressures have tightened the larynx (and other body parts) of most every television executive, the loss of one of the last great verbal gunslingers—who could sum up pretty much anything—hits that much harder.

Being a former entertainment-industry public-relations executive, I have written plenty of speaking points and press releases with alarming jargon-to-truth ratios. I have been guilty of saying, “They left to pursue other opportunities,” when the company fired someone's ass. I have written about “cross-platform synergistic initiatives,” which really meant that after 37 meetings over six months, two divisions in one company finally agreed to use the same Port-a-Potty at the company picnic.

Roger King would have stood for none of that language. It was pretty simple: You asked him a question and he told you the answer. And if he didn't want to tell you the truth, there was no corporate double-speak. He simply told you what you could go do to yourself if you thought he would tell you what you wanted to know.

One of my favorite interviews in recent years was in October 2006, when King World Productions, CBS Paramount Domestic Television and CBS Paramount International Television all came under one roof.

I think they named it the CBS Domestic Television Distribution King World International Production and Waffle House, or something else that sounds like a subsidiary of the Shinehardt Wig Co. on 30 Rock.

I was asking King about the upside of the move and he said, “It will present more opportunities for everybody here. This is my opportunity, and that's it. I've been in the business a long time, and I am happy for the chance to see these kids go up.”

I told Roger that sounded like a retirement speech. I thought he was going to punch me through the phone.

“It's not a retirement whatsoever,” he bellowed. “What, are you kidding me?”

Then I asked him if he was worried the company was too big.

“No, this is America, man!” he shouted back strongly enough that I remember questioning my patriotism for a moment. “It's not too big. Who knows what my competition will say? And I don't care. They don't set the watermark, anyhow.”

On that same call, I asked him if the company was going to have to cut a lot of staff after the merger. If I asked most media execs that question, I would first strap on galoshes knowing the amount of BS that was about to be slung. Not King.

“We have two of everything,” he said. What did I think would happen?

When his shows didn't work, he was honest about it. “King World has never held broadcasters to drag them through a failure, and right now it's a failure,” he once said of Living It Up! with Ali & Jack—while it was still on the air.

And when the syndication market wasn't to his liking, he didn't sugar-coat that either, such as before last year's NATPE.

“There were just failures and failures and failures,” he said of recent first-run shows. “Now no one can launch anything.”

Having been on the other side of the fence, I get why media companies and executives can rarely say anything interesting on the record. When ABC chief Steve McPherson had the guts to offer, on the record, his true opinion of the way NBC's Ben Silverman deflected media inquiries after the ousting of Kevin Reilly (“Be a man,” he complained), the television industry gasped in horror.

But what I'm really concerned about is having fewer execs like Roger King around, men who had the honesty, confidence and personality to make even my stories worth reading.

E-mail comments to ben.grossman@reedbusiness.com