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Mel's Diner: A Veteran of Reinvention Does It Again

The Dish: Explaining why he picked Saraya Thai Cuisine in a little Burbank strip mall for lunch, Mark Sonnenberg says he’s “very much a creature of habit.” That’s surprising, considering his extensive career spans varied arenas including research, local TV, morning news, basic cable and broadcast networks, VOD, pay-per-view, even inde- pendent film. Fox, FX, E!, Discovery and iN DEMAND are among his former employers. Indeed, he’s reinvented himself—and a number of companies—several times over. He doesn’t stay put out of habit.

But then hearing him order lunch, it’s clear he’s habitual about some things. He and the server exchange the kind of laughs that come with the familiarity of a place he frequents every couple of weeks. The server doesn’t even ask for his order—she knows he gets the same specially made dish each time.

“I judge a place first of all on how nice they are and whether or not they will laugh at my jokes and make a dish special. Some places you go to, no substitutions, nothing. I said, ‘I just want tofu and red peppers and peanuts and brown rice. And spicy,’” Sonnenberg says. He doesn’t know anything about how good the rest of the menu is.

And so it all makes sense. Sonnenberg is habitual, and not just about his food: When he knows something’s good, or he’s good at something, he goes with it. That’s the approach he took to his latest career move. In 2011, he and former colleague Howard Bolter founded XE5 Media Group (both are ex-E! and KTLA, a.k.a. L.A.’s channel five, employees; thus the name XE5).

Their company, which CEO Sonnenberg describes as “network builders in a TV Every where environment” taps his and COO Bolter’s comple- mentary experience, mutual love of storytelling and eyes for tech trends to make sense—and a darn good business—out of the ever-shifting TV and media landscape. So far, XE5’s list of collaborators has been as varied as Sonnenberg’s career, from big media companies (AT&T and Warner Bros.) to new digital players (Maker), smaller content companies (The Weinstein Company) and other new players both near (Jeff Gaspin and Jonathan Klein’s TAPP Media) and far (Ebony Life TV, a 24/7 network created in Nigeria).

Over his spicy brown rice concoction, Sonnenberg explains why he passed on secure corporate gigs to strike out on his own decades into his career, the huge life change that led him to favor brown rice over meatball sandwiches, and more. Highlights of the interview follow.

Last time we had lunch you surprised me when you zeroed in on the vegan things on the menu. What gives?

I try to abide by a plant-based lifestyle, and for me to say that is shocking to most people because I was probably the worst eater in the world. Picky eater. Didn’t eat a lot, but ate all the wrong things.

Such as?

Well, vegetables to me was minestrone soup. An occasional smoothie was fruit. A lot of meatball sandwiches and spaghetti and meat sauce.

How and why did you make the change?

Like every good story, the leading character has that point where they hit the low point and for me I found myself on the outside of a network restructure [at Discovery]. I found a malignant tumor in my arm and my father, who was the best man at my wedding and my best friend, passed away. So all of these things happened and fortunately I took care of the tumor but it made me take a hard look at everything I was doing and I decided to start eating better and realized that I didn’t need a lot of meat.

I liked fish but I basically started eating, I would say, 90% a vegan because I would still on occasion have something. But I try to adhere to a plant-based lifestyle and that’s how I started.

This was a few years back?

Yeah. And then what happens is you start to look at every- thing and I always had a pretty good balance between my personal and professional life. And I started to realize that I was far more interested in coaching youth baseball than where my next professional career move was going to be. But I also still had this tremendous burning desire in me for this business. I love content. I love storytelling. I realized that there were still so many things happening. It’s so exciting, the period of time we’re in. I wanted to get back and do something but do it not in a corporate structure.

For the first time in my professional career, I was like, I don’t want to jump into anything. I’d always been part of a corporate structure but for me when I left Discovery, I initially turned down things that came my way, whether right or wrong, but I realized I wanted to take a break.

What made you think now was the time to do something entrepreneurial and on your own?

I think it had something to do with everything that just happened. My father was a CPA and he always taught me to take risks, but the calculated risks. You have to be accountable to who you’re working with. So I kind of always looked at it as being focused but not putting blinders on. And it’s weird that my entire career was working in the entertainment space, but more secure type of positions. The world of production, entrepreneurial is a lot more risky. It’s ironic that my father passed away and that’s when I decided to embark on an entrepreneurial position. I had worked for entrepreneurial companies before, but I wasn’t the one taking the risk personally.

And it just had to do with the fact that also when Howard and I sat down, we realized that even though we come from different sides of the business, Howard and I both share a tremendous passion for content and storytelling.…Howard is very strong in the production and IT and operations. A genius and all that, with a strong passion for content and I come from the other side of the business, program acquisition, scheduling, development. We had both risen in positions of high senior management. And we both embrace technology at different levels but ultimately agree that it’s the mechanism that delivers content to the consumer and does so in a very simplistic and convenient manner. And we also realized that over our careers we had taken those two and built a lot of valuable assets for a lot of companies along the way.

More important, as we looked at the landscape, we saw that there are a lot of voices out there that have something very important to say. And a lot of companies that have a vision that they would like to see realized and that we were uniquely qualified to help them succeed. And so that’s how we set out to help people build new networks. We kind of look at ourselves as network builders in a TV Everywhere environment.

Whether it’s a linear channel, a nonlinear channel, whether it’s in-home, out-of-home. The landscape is changing so much that ev- ery company, every business has a poten- tial—there’s a way to utilize the media to broaden your brand and build assets.

It must feel pretty great taking on a new frontier at your experience level, at this point in your career.

I’ve been very fortunate to come into the television business when cable was just really exploding and then to see it through to video- on-demand, the Internet, the Internet bubble. And growing into a complete multiplatform world has been great because the one common thread across all of this is content. For me, I was the kid who fell asleep at night to the TV with the TV Guide latest edition next to me. I was most excited when the fall preview edition came out to figure out what shows were coming on, who were the people in it, what I thought was going to work. And then to ultimately be able to make a career out of working in this business, I realize I was extremely fortunate.

What specifically made you think you had a business? Did you talk to a couple of clients at first? To people that you knew?

Kevin Fortson at Warner was the catalyst. He felt that there were a lot of opportunities for people of our experience and the breadth of it, that we can come in every step of the way from conceptual to design to implementation and to operation and growth. And Kevin had a project at Warner Horizon that he was going to hire Howard to work on, he was looking at a whole new—Warner Horizon and Warner Bros.—was looking at converting over from physical to digital storage for all their assets and Kevin wanted to be at the forefront of that, starting with TheBachelor franchise and Bachelorette franchise. And Howard devised a cloud-based system to do so. And while he was doing that, I started, to your point, to reach out to a few companies to see if there was a business in what we were trying to do. And I approached AT&T U-verse and talked to Dan York [then president of content and advertising sales for AT&T U-Verse, now chief content officer of DirecTV].

What is your history with Dan?

Dan York and I worked together at iN DEMAND. I hired Dan from HBO. And then Dan, when I went to E!, shortly after that, Dan left and was consulting for SBC as they were developing what would turn out to be U-Verse. So when I was looking at this, one of the companies I reached out to was U-Verse because I felt very much that they’re not—even though AT&T tends to look at themselves as a phone company, you know, to a lot of consumers, they’re not just a phone company. They get a lot of great service and great entertainment value and now if you’re looking at the side whether you want your TV channels from—you’re choosing between satellite, cable and the telcos. That’s who you’re competing with and I always felt that technology is one point of differentiation. The ability to record in one room and watch in another. But just as a short-term advantage. Eventually everybody can do those things.

But to create your own channels and use that to help you a little bit in your negotiations for channel carriage and then ultimately be able to push those channels out and create your own assets I think is something that is very worthwhile for them to look at. When I talked to Dan about it, I talked to him about what we were planning to do, looking at it and saying this is something you guys should be looking at.

Shortly after our meeting, they asked if we wanted to produce a few concert productions. And we realized that [if] we’re about building networks and about the content that sits on those platforms [then] why not? So we produced a couple concerts for them, and before we finished they had put us under an overall production agreement. And then shortly after that, we started consulting for them on this country-themed network and then we helped them launch that. And then we started becoming a sounding board at the same time for the potential to launch a suite of new channels on U-verse. And before we knew it, we were under an agreement not only for a content strategy but operational strategy, building a suite of new networks that involved a lot of digital networks, digital companies that would bring their brand over to a linear network. So we were working with a lot of companies like Maker Studios, Popsugar, Young Hollywood.

But the initial conversation with Dan gave me enough comfort level along with Warner Horizon to say take a shot and go with it.…What pushed us over was we had a little bit of a starting point with Warner and then talking to AT&T, we felt good.

Pretty much to a person when I’ve talked to someone who’s gone off on their own after having a corporate career, they say it is one of the best choices they made in their career, if not the best. Would you say it’s one of the better choices you’ve made so far?

It’s definitely. It’s one of the best moves I made. Hopefully it will turn out to be the best move I ever made.

It’s still a little early, right.

I’ve been very fortunate. I’ve worked with some great people. I’ve worked at some great companies. For the most part, I’ve enjoyed every one of them. Working at Fox for so many years, there were so many things that I loved there—but there’s something special about when you have your own company, too. It’s a different world with cellphones and Skype and everything. You’re working all the time, but you’re also able to find that true balance. That’s really important to me and my wife and our kids.

Speaking of your time at Fox, there’s another longtime executive who recently made a decision to go and do their own thing: Anne Sweeney, who is leaving Disney and plans to direct television. You and she worked very closely together, launching FX, right? What did you make of her move?

I owe a lot to Anne Sweeney. She’s done a remarkable job not only launching FX, guiding its growth but going over to Disney and doing the things that she did at Disney over what, 18 years? So when she said she was going to leave and start a career as a director, I wasn’t shocked because, I applauded it. I just believe she’s the type of person that if this is something that she has burning inside her, for her to be able to go out and do something like that—I’m sure she’s going to learn and she’s going to go out there and do it. I sent her a note saying that there is going to be a point—and it won’t be long—when she’s winning her first award. And no one would be prouder than I am about her. She’s a wonderful person.

Given you launched XE5 three years ago, what advice would you give to someone who’s thinking about making a similar move—to another executive thinking, ‘I want to go and explore some of these pockets of opportunity in the new landscape?’

It’s a lot of the typical comments that people make. Life’s too short, enjoy it, embrace it. Maybe you hear that all the time because it is such a great statement, but everybody comes across it and is faced with it in life when they realize how precious life is and how fleeting it is. And if there’s something that you feel you want to do, you don’t want to look back and say, ‘I wish I had tried something. I wish I had done it.’ If you’re good at what you do, more importantly if you’re very passionate about it, you can go out and try stuff. The worst that happens is, it doesn’t work out and you go back and find yourself a new opportunity and take that experience and bring that experience into the new job.

What are the biggest concerns or things that mystify you about your business or business overall? Biggest uncertainties?

It’s a balance between providing a service for some companies where decisions are ultimately made by those companies and you can’t necessarily control that and working with some companies. In the middle of everything we were doing with AT&T with all the new channels initiative, we were very far down the road and they chose to kill the project. And they can do that because they’re AT&T and say, ‘Let’s not do this. Let’s buy DirecTV.’ It’s a business decision. Unfortunately, it has a negative impact on XE5.…But the more focused you are the more you are able to react to curveballs like that. And you have to diversify, to continue to build more businesses, more projects and have more clients.

So what is the status with AT&T? Still working on [the] Country Deep [app]?

We helped launched Country Deep and get it going and then we turned it back over internally. Occasionally when they do a concert or projects come up we can, you know, take a look at those. But the big initiative was put aside.

So what’s on tap for you this week?

Personally, or overall?

You as a human being.

The kids just started school. Baseball tryouts this weekend. Trying to get a major proposal out by tomorrow afternoon.

For new business?

For new business, for a new network. And preparing for my wife’s birthday.

Sounds like a good balance.

That’s the idea.