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New Game, New Rules, No Problem

Dick Robertson has been in television for 40 years, and this new inductee into the B&C Hall of Fame has seen it all. But the 59-year-old president of Warner Bros. Domestic Syndication would be the first to tell you the business climate is as challenging as ever.

His company is a subsidiary of the world’s largest entertainment company. But Time Warner falls short of Disney, NBC Universal, News Corp. and Viacom in one key area: It doesn’t own a television station group ready to buy programming from its syndication unit. (The WB is a network made up of affiliates; Warner Bros. doesn’t own any of the stations.)

So every time Robertson and his crew try to sell a show to the hundreds of stations owned by ABC, NBC, Fox and CBS, they have to stand in line behind the syndication units that are part of the same family as each of those four networks.

That is a huge change from just a few years ago, when there were more syndicators—and they weren’t tied to specific networks. As the industry has become vertically integrated, and as the rules changed allowing networks to own their own programming, it has made things much more difficult for Warner Bros., raising the hurdle that Robertson must clear every time he brings a first-run show to market.

“It’s so much higher,” he says. “You cannot imagine.”

But Robertson says that may not be a bad thing. The cutthroat competition keeps him and his colleagues at the top of their game.

“I say 'Thank God it’s not like it used to be,’ because if it was, I would have gotten bored and quit five years ago.”

One key to overcoming the challenge presented by vertical integration is choosing the right talent.

Robertson says he was able to turn The Rosie O’Donnell Show and The Ellen DeGeneres Show into hits because O’Donnell and DeGeneres had what it took to make those shows successful.

“We feel we have had a unique ability to identify people who can break through,” he says. “And we have the expertise, which is equally as important, to produce the show necessary.”

His latest effort is a talk show with Tyra Banks slated for next season, which he is bringing to NATPE.

When he talks about the show, he points to Banks’ previous experience in television—monthly stints on The Oprah Winfrey Show and the success of her UPN reality show, America’s Next Top Model. That experience has given her the depth she’ll be able to use as she launches the show, says Robertson.

Now, it’s his job to explain that to television stations.

“The biggest thing we have to overcome is her beauty and her supermodel background,” Robertson says. While those might be attributes to some, to Robertson, “that doesn’t make a good talk show host.”

But Robertson should be up to the task. He has been selling television programs since he entered the industry back in 1965, when he was still working on his bachelor’s degree in advertising at Virginia Commonwealth University. He has steadily climbed the ranks.

Robertson admits the change in ownership rules discouraged him at first. “We said, 'We can quit or we can try harder,’” he says. “We felt we had a real expertise in producing these shows. The only thing that could set us aside from the guys who own their own station groups was if we could lock up talent.”