TV's Undercover Mogul

6:00 AM PST 01/17/2012 by Alex Ben Block
Gari Lamar Askew

Comedian-turned-entrepreneur Byron Allen bags $100 million a year on shows you very likely have never heard of.

At the 2010 NATPE Market & Conference, CBS Television Distribution launched Swift Justice With Nancy Grace and Litton Entertainment brought Judge Karen's Court to market. Both came with multimillion-dollar promotional campaigns and won time slots in more than three-quarters of American TV homes.

A third legal show, America's Court With Judge Ross, cost far less to produce and was sold to local stations in a more low-key fashion. It cleared only about 45 percent of U.S. TV markets when it went on the air with little promotion.

But two years later, America's Court With Judge Ross, produced by Entertainment Studios, is the only one of those legal strips still on the air -- and it's now available in more than 85 percent of TV homes. The show is one of many unheralded successes for Entertainment Studios owner Byron Allen, a television executive who operates largely out of the mainstream and makes programs most people have never heard of: Cars.TV, Beautiful Homes & Great Estates and Every Woman among them. His company is the largest independent producer/distributor of first-run TV programming in the country and generates more than $100 million a year in revenue. "We have a 100 percent success track record," says Allen, who will attend his 31st consecutive NATPE from Jan. 23 through Jan. 25. "We have never canceled a show."

That's because Allen operates under a different business model from most producers: TV stations get his shows for free in exchange for handing over half the advertising time (usually seven of 14 minutes per hour). Allen then sells the time -- usually late at night or on weekends -- to such national advertisers as Procter & Gamble and Ford, which buy a guaranteed number of viewers across all E.S. programs. If one show underperforms, Allen simply makes it up with ads on his other shows. 

The result is that E.S., which Allen started in his Los Angeles condo in 1993, now has three offices, 100 employees and a bustling studio in Culver City. It produces 26 shows: five daily strips, 18 weeklies and three annual specials. 

"I'm not in the television hit business," says Allen. "I'm in the television real estate business, and when I get a time period on a TV station, we're not giving it back."

He also makes money as the owner of six HD networks available on Verizon Fios and a few other services, all of which air his shows. "You can reach 35 million people with me," Allen says, "and spend way less than what you'd spend to reach 35 million people on the networks." 

Allen, 50, started as a stand-up comic, appearing on The Tonight Show at 18 and hosting the popular late-'70s newsmagazine Real People. In 1993 he created his own show, Entertainers With Byron Allen, recruiting fellow comics as guests. He was convinced the show was good, but he couldn't get it on the air, so he started his own company.

E.S. now has a library of 4,000 hours of programming, some produced for as little as $400 per half hour (others for as much as $25,000 per half hour). Even when a station group drops an E.S. show -- as NBC may do with his We the People With Gloria Allred, another courtroom show -- the content lives on in syndication, endless recycling on the HD networks and video-on-demand, as well as in nonexclusive deals with Netflix and other outlets.

Because he owns full rights, Allen can reuse programs on new platforms in any market. His Smart TV app, due for wide rollout this year, makes each of his shows available for a $1.99 subscription. "He started by doing basically weekend programming," says Bill Carroll, Katz Media's vp and director of programming, "and has been able to grow his business to a new level."

Allen still hosts two shows -- Entertainers With Byron Allen and Comics Unleashed -- and is moving into scripted sitcoms and features. At NATPE he'll launch Justice for All With Judge Cristina Perez as a daily strip, and he's prepping an HD network centered around African-American history and people. Allen says he could sell E.S. for $1 billion but has no plans to do so.

"I'm happy to be in the game," says the married father of two girls. "You take crumbs and you make a loaf of bread. And next thing you know, you have a gourmet meal."

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WHAT'S HOT AT NATPE IN MIAMI BEACH

  • Anger Management: Cocktails with Charlie Sheen to promote his new syndicated series on Jan. 23 
  • Theme: Brands & Advertising: All-day Jan. 24 with a keynote panel moderated by Michael Kassan of MediaLink 
  • The Brandon Tartikoff Legacy Awards: Mad Men showrunner Matthew Weiner and three others  honored Jan. 24
  • Digital Luminary Awards: Honoring NASA, Yahoo and others  Jan. 25 in the Digital Theater

 

 
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