Roger King Sounds Off

Roger King, CEO of CBS Television Distribution (CTD), is the blunt-speaking playmaker of the syndication business, and the annual National Association of Television Program Executives (NATPE) convention is his giant playground

King and his brother Michael transformed King World from a mom-and-pop operation into the industry distribution leader before it eventually became a part of CBS.

The empire is responsible for Wheel of Fortune, Jeopardy!, The Oprah Winfrey Show, Entertainment Tonight and Judge Judy, along with the off-network giants Everybody Loves Raymond and the various CSI franchise staples. Eight —and sometimes nine—of the top 10 series in syndication are distributed or produced by a division of CBS that King controls. CTD leads virtually every sector of the business.

He’s a colorful throwback to the old days of syndication, as well as a steadfast believer in the power of broadcast television. King continues to lavishly wine and dine clients each year with a big NATPE gala headlined by others who came to fame in an earlier era; Elton John has been a recurring act over the years. (King is not confirming reports that Steely Dan will take center stage this week.)

In a conversation with B&C’s Jim Benson on the eve of the convention, King discusses why he thinks the first-run market is so bad that even he couldn’t clear new projects.

Why are you holding back on introducing a new version of Joker’s Wild and a game show, Combination Lock, at NATPE?

We’re reassessing them, and the door is still open. Harry Friedman [their creator and the executive producer of Wheel and Jeopardy!] and Sony did a fantastic job, but those shows are expensive. While we could have gotten them cleared, I didn’t think we had the right time periods. Maybe you’ll see them in January of next year.

If Roger King, who has most of the top series in syndication, can’t clear two game shows, what does that say about the state of the first-run business?

Means nothing! Listen, I can certainly clear two game shows, but the deals have to make financial sense for us and for our clients. Yes, the first-run business is at one of its most challenging points ever. We have a rich man’s problem with loads of hit shows.

But I don’t see a whole lot of new stuff out there. It is a self-fulfilling prophecy. There were just failures and failures and failures. Now no one can launch anything.

So, maybe it’s just too hard to launch a show in syndication.

There will be another Oprah and Dr. Phil and Judge Judy. It is a hard problem to solve, but it is possible. Rachael Ray is a perfect example. We spent a ton of money on that because we saw her becoming a big star and that there is a market for it.

What kind of timetable do you have to turn your magazine shows into an HD format?

With our great partners at Sony, we are leading the way with HD, having launched Wheel of Fortune and Jeopardy! this fall into HD. We also provided a new HD version of the first Star Trek series in off-net.

We don’t have any specific timetable for our other shows, but ET, Inside Edition and The Insider are the leaders, and we’re definitely looking into getting them into HD.

How will your company utilize the Web and other new technologies in the years ahead?

We have a whole division for other media. I can foresee, down the road, the Internet and television joining forces, which is why we are developing a show [with Web elements] that you may see in the very near future.

Could we see that next season?

I’ve already told you too much! I’m really not able to give you any more information. But stay tuned. We’re always coming up with something good.