The Way We Were: A Few Timely Recollections

By Bob Jenkins

To celebrate VideoAge’s 25th birthday it was decided that we would reminisce with some industry veterans who’ve been around as long as VideoAge has, to muse over their memories of the characters they’ve met, the fun they’ve had along the way, the changes they’ve witnessed and whether those changes have been for the better or for the worse.

Herb Lazarus has just about done it all in the television business, having started his career in 1954 with the then- Television Programs of America (which eventually was taken over by ITC). Now president of Carsey-Werner International (which is also celebrating its 25th anniversary this year), Lazarus has also enjoyed illustrious stints at Fox and Columbia. For him, the key moment in the past quarter-century when it comes to U.S television, has been the arrival of the new networks, spearheaded by Fox.   On the international side, he pointed to new technologies such as cable and satellite, followed by DVD, digital channels and the arrivals of 3G mobile technology and the Internet. He pointed specifically to these developments because, as Lazarus put it, "all of these developments opened up so many more opportunities to sell programs."

Bob The Builder
Carsey-Werner's Herb Lazarus

For exactly the same reason, Doug Schwalbe, executive vice president, World-wide Distribution at Classic Media, nominated the arrival of private television as a major milestone, which he said, "brought a welcome end to the days when monopolistic state broadcasters would finish a screening with the demand: "I’ll take episodes two, seven and nine!"

Herb Lazarus remembers those days too, and recounted a story about Gunner Rugheimer, who in the ’70s (a decade before VideoAge was launched) was head of Acquisitions for the BBC, and along with his ITV counterpart, Leslie Halliwell, Rugheimer represented 50 percent of the U.K. television sales market. Rugheimer was at the annual studio screenings in May (then called the "May Screenings," later renamed the "L.A. Screenings" by VideoAge ) and requested a supplementary meeting in addition to his regular screening meeting because he wanted to "talk about a pet project of his," or, in other words, to ask Lazarus and his Columbia team for money. As Lazarus recalled, the first meeting was normal Screenings fare, including a boardroom lunch with the president of Columbia. Three days later Rugheimer returned for his second meeting. Lazarus and his then-boss Norman Horowitz -- whom he still regards, along with Alan Silverbach, Bill Saunders and Ken Page, as some of the great characters in the history of the TV business -- decided that it would do Gunner good to know what it felt like to be selling, not buying.   

They deliberately neglected to inform whomever was stationed at the gate that he was coming, and the guard refused to let Rugheimer in. When the security guard called through, he was told to let him in, but to park him as far from the building as possible -- and then direct him to a door marked, "tradesman entrance." When he did make it to their office they didn’t offer him anything to eat or drink -- not even a glass of water --and kept interrupting the presentation to take "important phone calls." Eventually they told Rugheimer that he had taught them that when one is asking for money, not offering it, the way one is treated changes immensely.

There were other potential drawbacks to selling. Gianfranco Lombardi, now retired, but for many years a major agent in Italy, recalled selling RAI a live, two-hour special (produced by the now-defunct LBS) on the unveiling of the last unopened chamber of the Great Pyramid of Cheops, hosted by Omar Sharif. The event was to take place the day before MIP. In order to cover the disparity in station breaks, RAI had hired its own host, whom they put on air just before the transmission was to be switched on, in order to build up the show. What LBS had not told anyone was that the producer had fouled up shooting permissions, so they sent Sharif and crew to England, to do a live, two-hour interview with the son of Howard Carter, who discovered the tomb of Tutankhamen, rather than to the great pyramid of Cheops. As the Italian host proudly proclaimed, "and now we go live to the Omar Sharif at the Pyramid of Cheops," Italian viewers were treated to an octogenarian telling Sharif how much he had enjoyed Lawrence of Arabia ! Lombardi recalled that this made for an exciting start to MIP!

It took a while for the power of major buyers to diminish. Greg Phillips, president, Fireworks International, recalled how, shortly after joining the U.S. TV network CBS, he took Leslie Halliwell’s successor, Don Gale, to lunch. Phillips told Gale he had a "mixture of TV movies on offer -- some drama, some action, some romance, a few comedies." Gale replied by saying simply "Tell me about them." A puzzled Phillips replied, "I just did." "Tell me the plot of one of them," retorted Gale, ending the ensuing silence with, "ANY one of them." Phillips had to admit that he hadn’t actually watched any. Gale bought them anyway because, "[he] need[ed] TV movies and as they’re from CBS they’ll be good." But he did attach one condition -- that he and Phillips meet again in a month, by which time Gale would have screened one movie, and would be asking detailed questions   -- which meant that Phillips had to screen them all to be sure of passing the test and clinching the deal.

Both these stories illustrate a truth about this business, which probably hasn’t changed much over the past 25 years: it is, indeed, a "people business."

When asked which of these people have inspired him over the years, Phillips nominated two individuals he said have most impressed him. "The most astute guy I have had the pleasure of dealing with over the years," he asserted, "is [Tele-München Group owner] Herbert Kloiber. Herbert," opined Greg, "has a mind like a steel trap. He’s very smart, very tough, but also very fair. In fact," he concluded, "Herbert is to the international television business what Boris Becker was to tennis." But Phillips also reserved a special mention for the late U.K. TV producer and Thames Television honcho Philip Jones, whom he believes, "had probably forgotten more about selling than most people ever learned."    

Jones also impressed Ted Riley, executive managing director, International Content Distribution at Alliance Atlantis. "Philip Jones was an absolute inspiration to me," recalled Riley,   "not only was he a well-known bon vivant, he was also one of the shrewdest businessmen and freshest minds I have ever met."

Another executive who holds a special place in Riley’s memory is Art Kane. The former CBS executive, recalled Riley, "was an exceptional businessman, but he was also a decent and caring person, and conducted himself as a gentleman in all things."

But Classic’s Schwalbe expressed fear that this very aspect of the business is changing for the worst. "One of the things that I miss about the way the business used to be," he admitted, "is the boozy lunch. That has now all but disappeared, and the reason for this is the arrival of the conglomerate." Schwalbe thinks this has had the biggest impact on the movie business, where he believes, "until the end of the ’80s, studio bosses had the final green light for movies. Now," he believes, "that decision lies in the hands of the people who own the studios, and the decisions are as much about corporate management as they are about entertainment."

In many ways this is a very different business from the one that existed 25 years ago. But in other ways it hasn’t changed at all. In fact, the spirit of the business is in many ways unchanged. As Greg Phillips bravely summed up, "the business is more challenging now than it was, and I like that. As far as I am concerned, new media? Bring it on!"