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Zigging While Others Zag

At first glance, Andy Kaplan is your traditional successful businessman. He holds a B.A. in economics from UCLA and an M.B.A. from USC, and he has headed Sony Pictures Television’s global cable and satellite television networks and investments since 2002. He has been a part of the Sony Pictures team, and its past iterations, for more than 22 years. Lionsgate Co-Chairman and CEO Jon Feltheimer, with whom Kaplan worked for nine years, describes him as “quite conservative, very practical, very steady.”

Not that there’s anything wrong with that, but “steady” doesn’t exactly come to mind when you consider that under Kaplan’s leadership, SPT’s international network revenues have tripled, with profi ts increasing tenfold. “Practical” and “conservative” also do not necessarily fit for a company where a free on-demand online video network—Crackle—is one of the studio’s most rapidly expanding businesses.

Now, under Kaplan, SPT is expanding from its international market—its branded networks have 122 channel feeds in more than 140 countries— to launch two new cable television channels in the U.S. Oct. 1. Perhaps this is all happening because the “traditional businessman,” by his own admission, is driven by a “lust and desire for learning new things all the time,” leading him to seek success in the untraditional.

“He really became my right-hand man for all of our business opportunities,” says Feltheimer, who as founder and president of TriStar Television teamed up with Kaplan in the early 1990s to merge with Columbia Pictures Television. “Whether it was a television production, syndication, distribution, the channels that we grew internationally, Andy was [fully] involved in every aspect of what [we] did. Even if it wasn’t in his purview, his office was right next to mine, and I relied on him on every deal for his input and his business acumen.”

A Los Angeles native, Kaplan says the entertainment industry is in his blood; his uncle, Ben Starr, was a writer on Diff’rent Strokes and All in the Family, and his stepfather was producer Ed Jurist. “I always had an affinity for it,” he says. “I didn’t know what I was going to do or how I was going to get there, but I always knew what the goal was.”

After a brief flirtation with writing for sitcoms— “I didn’t have the constitution to be a suffering artist for a long period of time,” Kaplan admits—he rebooted his commitment to the industry. Starting in the mailroom at Norman Lear’s Embassy Communications, Kaplan worked his way up the ranks while pursuing his M.B.A at night.

Kaplan first joined the Sony Pictures team— then Columbia Pictures Television—in 1987 as VP, Office of the Chairman. Throughout the ’90s, he and Feltheimer worked aggressively to expand SPT domestically and abroad, citing their 1998 multimillion- dollar acquisition of Telemundo (with TCI) as their greatest accomplishment for the studio.

By 2000, Kaplan was restless in the world of traditional media. He left his role as executive VP of Sony Pictures Television Group, where he also oversaw the studio’s early days of interactive television, to take the helm of a nascent Hollywood Stock Exchange.

“It was that moment in time in the late ’90s where the world was going crazy—the Nasdaq was at an all-time high, the Internet bubble was at its peak,” he says. “It seemed liked an interesting moment to take my experience in traditional media, and a little bit in new media, and chase that dream, which would become the dot-com era.”

When the bubble burst, he was disillusioned that HSX devoted most of its time to the shortterm goal of raising money, instead of expanding its vision for its future. Nonetheless, he considers his time there as the most valuable learning experience of his career.

“You’d start the day with essentially a blank piece of paper, and whatever it is you create is solely a function of ingenuity, innovation and creativity,” Kaplan says. “It gave me an appreciation for the challenges of entrepreneurs and smaller businesses, but also the energizing aspects of those kinds of businesses.”

In 2002, when Kaplan returned to the oldmedia world as senior executive VP of international networks for SPT, he had a few new-media tricks up his sleeve. “What I hope I did was apply my entrepreneurial [knowledge] and nature of those small companies to the more institutional big-company situation and take the best of both worlds,” Kaplan says.

“Thinking small” continues to guide Kaplan as SPT embarks on a more aggressive pursuit of the U.S. market. This includes the Oct. 1 cable launch of Sony Movie Channel and horror entertainment channel FEARnet, a linear channel with Comcast and Lionsgate that has operated since 2006 as a Website and video-on-demand channel.

Horror is “not my first personal genre of choice,” Kaplan admits, but he believes the channel’s appeal is obvious. “There aren’t many places where you can go specifically to get the thriller and horror genre product,” he says.

FEARnet, along with Crackle, will allow SPT to carve out a niche that focuses on non-linear offerings and the online advertising world while others are chasing different business models. For Kaplan, the free and ad-supported arenas are open playing fields for SPT to build its ad sales force and maximize revenue.

“It’s the early days, but I think we’ve established a good base and a subscriber foundation,” Kaplan says. “The product is really good and gets better every day. We’re zigging a little bit when everyone else is zagging, and I hope that becomes a strategic advantage for us.”

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