CBS TV Distribution's Roger King dies


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Roger King, the colorful television pioneer who brought Oprah Winfrey to national television, died Saturday at Boca Raton Community Hospital after suffering a stroke at his home the day before. He was 63.

Most recently CEO of CBS Television Distribution, King was one of the most accomplished salespeople in television. He transformed the family business his father founded in 1964, King World, into a production and syndication powerhouse that merged with CBS in 1999 in a deal worth more than $2.5 billion to King World.

Among his successful syndication launches are "The Oprah Winfrey Show," "Dr. Phil," "Wheel of Fortune," "Jeopardy!," "Inside Edition" and "Rachael Ray."

King was regarded as one of the industry's liveliest and most generous characters who possessed an enthusiasm for his day-to-day work that endured long after he amassed great wealth.

In media interviews, King was known for refusing to censor himself, oftentimes ruffling feathers with his critical comments about everything from NATPE to his competitors' product.

In fact, King proved he could still toss a bombshell among his syndication brethren this fall when he decided to "sit out" the upcoming NATPE Conference & Exhibition, at which the company traditionally exhibited. The decision partially was due to the fact that "Dr. Phil" spin-off "The Doctors" -- which King was personally and actively selling to stations when he died -- already was widely cleared for a fall 2008 debut.

The NATPE news came as a shock to many who looked forward to King's annual dinner and party at the confab, a two-decades-long tradition that in years past featured performances by such artists as Elton John and the Eagles and one year included a surprise appearance by Winfrey.

At the time of his death, King oversaw all operations of CBS TV Distribution, which was formed in 2006, combining the assets of King World Prods., CBS Paramount Domestic Television, CBS Paramount International Television and CBS Consumer Products.

CBS declined comment on King's replacement as head of the division, whose senior executives include president/COOs Robert Madden and John Nogawski.

Leslie Moonves, president and CEO of CBS Corp., issued a statement saying: "Television has lost a legend; a truly original executive with an unparalleled combination of business acumen, passion and personality. CBS has lost a colleague and good friend. It's a very sad day for CBS and for all of broadcasting."

King was born in 1944 in New Jersey, one of Charles and Lucille King's six children. Charles King built his syndication business after acquiring rights to Hal Roach's "Our Gang" shorts, which King World repackaged and distributed as a half-hour series under the title "The Little Rascals."

After his father died in 1972, Roger King -- who had worked as a newspaper sales representative, radio station manager, host of a local late-night movie show in Florida and television station sales manager -- and his siblings took over the family business. Roger and Michael King took the lead, along with their brother Bob King, who served as president until 1984. King was named chairman of the board of King World in 1977.

King World found some success with the game shows "Tic Tac Dough" and "Joker's Wild," but the company's business began to take off after acquiring rights in 1983 to syndicate Merv Griffin's "Wheel of Fortune." The NBC game show had been on the air since 1975 but was on the verge of cancellation.

Bringing on new personalities Pat Sajak and Vanna White, King World began selling "Wheel" to stations with the novel idea of asking for barter advertising time in addition to the cash license fee. Despite an initial lack of clearances in such major markets as New York, Los Angeles and Chicago, the show grew to become the top-rated show in syndication, where it has remained for 24 years.

"Roger loved what he did, and it showed," White said. "He was always full of spunk and laughter."

The next year, King World brought another Griffin game show, "Jeopardy!" -- which also had run on NBC, from 1964-75 -- to syndication, bringing Alex Trebek on board as the host of the new incarnation. That show, launched in 1984, also would become a syndication hit.

Said Trebek: "Roger was the quintessential television salesman. He knew the business and loved the impact he made on it. He was a giant, in more ways than one."

One year after the launch of "Jeopardy!" came yet another big break. Dennis Swanson, who was general manager of WLS Chicago and now serves as president of station operations at the Fox Television Stations Group, suggested to Roger and Michael King that they meet with Winfrey, then host of WLS' "A.M. Chicago."

The Kings believed that Winfrey could take on Phil Donahue, who was in the midst of his successful run as daytime talk show host. They proved prescient: Winfrey would go on to host the No. 1-rated talk show in daytime and spin off another successful daytime talk show in 2002, "Dr. Phil," now the No. 2-rated talker.

"Roger was the best sales executive this industry has ever known," Winfrey said. "He was a larger-than-life partner who helped me launch two decades of success in syndication. I will never forget what he did for me, and this industry will never forget his legendary presence."

Added Dr. Phil McGraw: "His passing will leave a huge void in all of our lives, just as his dedication has left an indelible mark on the landscape of television. There will never be another Roger King."

After King World merged with the CBS-owned syndication division in 1999, Michael King transitioned into a consultant role. Roger King became CEO of CBS Enterprises and King World Prods. a year later as part of a restructuring at CBS Enterprises. The company was reorganized again last year with the formation of CBS Television Distribution.

"Roger was a very dear, close friend for 30 years," said Greg Meidel, president of MyNetworkTV and former president of programming at CBS Paramount Domestic TV. "He lived life to the fullest, and he will truly be missed."

Last year also saw the launch of another successful daytime talker, "Rachael Ray," which had the highest-rated premiere for a talker since "Dr. Phil" four years earlier. That show's host remembered King once letting her in one of his sales secrets.

"He was a singular man who once told me that the key to his salesmanship was the ability to offer a great tuna sandwich to his customers," Ray said. "Roger confided in me that the secret to his sandwich was simply a splash of milk."

When he became CEO of the division, King also gained oversight of such CBS Paramount-distributed shows as "Entertainment Tonight" and its spinoff, "The Insider"; "Judge Judy"; and "Judge Joe Brown." He also oversaw the sales of such off-net series as "Everybody Loves Raymond," "CSI: Crime Scene Investigation," "CSI: Miami," "CSI: New York," "Survivor," "The Amazing Race" and "America's Next Top Model."

"ET" anchor Mary Hart said: "All of us in the industry have known and respected Roger for many years. His passing is a great loss."

Other first-run shows launched by King over the years included the updated "Hollywood Squares" with Whoopi Goldberg, "Inside Edition," "The Geraldo Rivera Show," "Martha Stewart Living" and the weeklies "CBS MarketWatch Weekend" and "Bob Vila's Home Again."

"Roger left a legacy of thousands of hours of entertainment for millions of people," Judge Judy Sheindlin said.

Not all of King World's shows would become hits. Over the years, the company launched such short-lived strips as the Roseanne Barr-hosted "Roseanne," "The Ananda Lewis Show," "The Cindy Margolis Show," "The Martin Short Show" and "Living It Up! With Ali & Jack."

He also had personal troubles in the '80s, when he was treated for substance abuse. In 1987, he pleaded no contest to charges of auto theft and cocaine possession after fighting with a taxi driver in Florida. Five years later, following a physical altercation with two hotel guests at Caesars in Las Vegas, he pleaded no contest to misdemeanor battery.

But King found time to help out with charitable causes, actively working with the Miami Project to Cure Paralysis, the Ronald McDonald House and the Make a Wish Foundation.

Among his honors, King was recognized with a special tribute at NATPE in 2000 and inducted into the National Association of Broadcasters Hall of Fame in 2004.

King, who also has a home in Bay Head, N.J., is survived by his wife, Raemali, and three daughters, Kellie, Anna Rose and Lucinda.

Melissa Grego contributed to this report.