Syndication Pioneer Sets the Golden Standard

Sandy Frank has been selling shows into syndication since before syndication even existed.

At just 21, he sold Pantomime Quiz, hosted by Mike Stokey, to NBC, where it aired in 1952 as part of the show’s long life that included runs on all three major networks.

“I felt very confident that I could sell anything. I had a lot of gumption and I always felt I could do the impossible,” says Frank, now 85 and still working hard.

“Sandy was one of the people who pioneered the independent sale of products,” says Dave Kenin, former president of CBS Sports and former executive VP of Crown Media. “It was very competitive, and for an independent seller to get out and clear markets and sell products, it took a special breed of cat.”

Through the years, Frank has been behind the sale of some of TV’s earliest franchises, including Name That Tune, Lassie, The Parent Game and The Dating Game. The FCC’s institution of the prime access rule in 1971, which prevented station affiliates from airing network-produced programming in the hour prior to primetime, was a golden opportunity for Frank.

“I was the first distributor to have three shows on in prime access during the same season: Treasure Hunt, The Bobby Vinton Show and Name That Tune. I became the king of syndication,” says Frank. He also had some hard and fast rules to doing business, says Tom Battista, former executive VP, CBS TV Stations, and president of Sandy Frank Entertainment.

“Rule 1 was never pitch to someone who can’t give you an order. The program director or sales guys could and should be in the meeting, but you had to have the decision-maker in the room,” says Battista. “Rule 2 was to never, ever pitch a program over the phone. You’ve got to press the flesh, Sandy would say. And rule 3 was to be well-researched in the particular market you were pitching.”

While traveling the world buying and selling shows, Frank had some singular experiences.

In April 1977, Frank attended MIP in Cannes, France, where he first encountered the Japanese animated sci-fi show Gatchaman. After seeing the success of Star Wars in May 1977, Frank committed to distributing the series in the U.S., adapting it to Battle of the Planets. Sandy Frank Entertainment also had been distributing and dubbing Japanese Daiei monster films since the mid-’60s, which later were lampooned by Comedy Central’s Mystery Science Theater 3000.

Also in 1977, Frank read Israeli prime minister Menachen Begin’s autobiography, Revolt, and optioned the rights for $100,000, with the intention of producing and distributing a movie based on it. The movie never got made, but Frank ended up helping Barbara Walters land her historic interview with Begin and Egyptian prime minister Anwar Sadat.

He also acquired the rights to Sadat’s autobiography for $100,0000, and appeared on a broadcast to the Egyptian nation announcing that he was making a movie based on Sadat’s life. That project became a miniseries, produced by Columbia Pictures and starring Louis Gossett, Jr. as Sadat. Because Gossett was much darker skinned than Sadat, the Egyptian government disliked the project. It banned sales of Coca-Cola, then the parent company of Columbia.

Frank also worked with Columbia Pictures on another project, Lie Detector, for which he put up the money to produce 150 episodes at $135,000 per week. Frank managed to raise the capital and get the show sold, but Lie Detector failed to score ratings. As a courtesy to his station customers, he pulled the show with the intention of replacing it a few months later with Name That Tune.

In the meantime, however, a new show was being shopped by the upstart King brothers: Wheel of Fortune. Stations bought that show to replace Lie Detector and never looked back.

“I gave up the most valuable thing in syndication— prime-access time periods,” says Frank.

That was disappointing, but it didn’t slow the man down. Today, Frank is preparing to attend his 51st NATPE show. In 1964, he launched the NATPE distributors’ hospitality suite at the Savoy Plaza Hotel in New York City.

At the time, distributors weren’t allowed to attend NATPE, which started in 1963 and stands for the National Association of Television Program Executives. Frank circumvented the rules by booking a suite at the hotel and inviting the meeting’s 71 program directors to come to his suite, enjoy some refreshments and screen his two shows: Buckaroo 500 and You Asked For It.

This year, Frank is pitching several programs and packages to buyers: half-hour game show Face the Music, a format that Frank produced and sold from 1979-82; half-hour docudrama Burden of Proof; unscripted half-hour Strike it Close; docudrama half-hour If Not Now… When; and the Duke Racing catalog, which features 150 episodes covering a variety of auto races.

“Sandy’s chief characteristic is intensity,” says Kenin. “He’s never willing to take no for an answer.”

Paige Albiniak

Contributing editor Paige Albiniak has been covering the business of television for nearly 25 years. She is a longtime contributor to Next TV, Broadcasting + Cable and Multichannel News. She concurrently serves as editorial director for entertainment marketing association Promax. She has written for such publications as TVNewsCheck, The New York Post, Variety, CBS Watch and more. Albiniak was B+C’s Los Angeles bureau chief from September 2002 to 2004, and an associate editor covering Congress and lobbying for the magazine in Washington, D.C., from January 1997-September 2002.