Surviving to win again

When senior-level TV executives are asked how they got their lucky breaks, they often say they "fell" into the business, suggesting that hard work had nothing to do with it.

Admittedly, the first job that Robb Dalton, now president of production/distribution company Fireworks Television, scored in broadcasting was a big-time accident. At just 14 years old, he was transformed from assistant into full-fledged disk jockey at a Nebraska radio station the day a DJ unexpectedly suffered a nervous breakdown.

But ever since that moment—"What are our options?" he recalls asking the station engineers. "We don't have any, other than you starting in," they replied—Dalton has proved that hard work has lots to do with finding TV success.

Accomplishments since his early radio days include writing best-selling self-help novel Lifeplanning; surviving the CBS/Viacom merger; and, at Fireworks, helping give VH1 its first original series: Pulling the Strings, executive-produced by Barbra Streisand, should debut next year.

Dalton says the "the watershed moment" in his drive to rack up such career credits happened when his father died while Dalton was still in his teens.

Spinning tunes on the radio "was sort of fun and a hobby. But now it suddenly became important," recalls Dalton, who kept his radio job while majoring in broadcasting at Wayne State College. "I was the oldest son, and this was now a way to make money." Not one to slack off, he graduated summa cum laude in 1975 and later obtained an M.B.A. from the University of Nebraska.

He became head of ABC-affiliated Kansas stations KAKE-TV, KLBY-TV and KUPK-TV, where he was "the general-manager pest for ABC. I would constantly send the network ideas for sitcoms."

But ABC always shot down his pitches, including one that revolved around people working at a TV station. The network's usual reply: "What do you think you're doing? You're the station manager!" he remembers.

However, when he scored his first major achievement with his book Lifeplanning, now in its 10th-plus printing, Dalton knew there was a market for his ideas. From 1986 to 1994, he steered his own production company, Pinnacle Entertainment, which produced 19 series, including a PBS Masterpiece Theatre project starring James Earl Jones, Signs and Wonders.

Eventually, Pinnacle sold off its publishing and TV properties, and Ed Wilson, now president of NBC Enterprises, recruited Dalton as a consultant to his syndication company, MaXam Entertainment. When MaXam was acquired by CBS in 1996, Dalton landed the position of senior vice president, programming and development, at CBS Enterprises. His fondest memories of his time there include hammering out TNN's first original scripted series, 18 Wheels of Justice, developing James Brolin's Pensacola
and nailing clearances for the syndication of Everybody Loves Raymond.

Dalton stuck with CBS through 1999, the year it was rocked by two mergers: its acquisition of King World in April and its own purchase by Viacom shortly thereafter.

But Dalton "loved every minute" and sees his time at CBS as "the cherry on top" of his career. "We got to create shows!"

He points out that he is now president of Fireworks, Wilson is head of NBC Enterprises, and another CBS colleague, Bob Cook, runs Twentieth Television: "So we all did fine."

Wilson agrees, noting, "Robb is the guy who's always looking for a better way of doing things."

At Fireworks, he is jointly producing with Miramax A Wrinkle in Time, a $20 million miniseries slated to air next year as part of the ABC's Wonderful World of Disney

Also, Dalton—who reports to Jay Firestone and Adam Haight, chair and entertainment president, respectively, of the Canada-based Fireworks—will be involved in the fall 2002 launch of the syndicated hour Mutant X, with partner Tribune Entertainment.