TV Agent Mark Itkin on Why He's Retiring, How Reality TV Can Recover and a Lost Oprah-Lee Daniels Show

Rainer Hosch
WME Partner Mark Itkin

In his final interview as a WME partner, Itkin, whose career has spanned 34 years, talks openly about the industry's challenges and the soap opera that Winfrey and Daniels almost did.

A version of this story first appeared in the Dec. 25 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.

When Mark Itkin began his career at William Morris in 1982, the nonscripted television business still was in its infancy. "Nobody cared about it at all," he says, seated in his corner office at WME's Beverly Hills headquarters just weeks after he announced he'd be stepping down at year's end. He lets out a deep sigh and then adds: "They didn't even know how to pronounce half the companies' names, but they saw the money that it brought in."

In those early years, Itkin, 62, says he struggled just to lure trainees to his department, which lacked the prestige of scripted TV. But it was that ability to fly under the radar and to innovate in the reality genre that appealed to the Los Angeles-reared agent, who got his law degree from UC Berkeley before joining the agency. Over the course of Itkin's 34-year career — first at William Morris and later as a partner at WME — he became an architect of both the modern syndication business and the unscripted model, bringing many of the industry's most significant hits to air. Among them: The Real World, Deal or No Deal and American Gladiators. He's also credited with importing some of the biggest formats, including Big Brother and The Biggest Loser, as well as helping to pioneer the 10/90 scripted model with Tyler Perry's House of Payne.

In his final interview as an agency partner, Itkin, a classic car collector and DJ who has two daughters (and three grandchildren) with his longtime partner, interior designer Bradley Bayou, speaks candidly about the industry's challenges, the sitcom that Lee Daniels and Oprah walked away from, and the real reason he's calling it quits.

Looking back at your career, what was your most challenging sale?

It was probably 1984, when a guy from Youngstown, Ohio, named John Ferraro came into my office. He owned a Gold's Gym out there, and he had a stand-up cardboard advertisement that showed these two guys arm wrestling and on the bottom of it it said "American Gladiators." There was no show, but I just thought, "That's a great title!" I sent John over to Four Point Entertainment, which was the first big production company that I was building. They developed it, and then it took me five and a half years to sell it. Nobody would take a chance on it.

Why not?

Because it was so different — and that's how our business is. I went to every distributor. I sold it to Blair Entertainment at one point and it just sat there. Finally, in 1988 or 1989, I went to the Samuel Goldwyn Company, which wasn't really in the first-run syndication business, and they bought it. It went on the air the same year as this roller derby show called RollerGames. No one had ever heard of American Gladiators, and everybody thought the roller derby show was going to be the biggest, most gigantic hit. Both go on the air, and 13 weeks later RollerGames is history. The lesson I learned: The toughest sales are the biggest hits.

What was the most rewarding deal?

A friend of mine calls me one day and says, "I have this friend in New York who works for [TV rep firm] HRP. He doesn't want to be a rep anymore, and he's got lots of really good ideas for television. Can I have him call you?" So this guy called me and then he came out and I even let him sleep on my couch. He had some really good ideas, but you couldn't sell him because he's not a branded packager or producer whom people would know. I had to figure out who I could put him with who would make sense. I had a good friend who was a soap opera producer, but she was working at New World and wasn't overly happy there, so I introduced them and they clicked. They formed a little company called Bunim/Murray.

That company then made The Real World, which birthed the reality genre.

Yes. Though first, Lauren Corrao, who was at MTV, called and said she wanted to do a scripted soap opera and wondered whether I represented anyone who knows how to do that. I said, "I got one of the best: Mary-Ellis Bunim." She goes in [and] cuts the deal. Now this is around 1990, when MTV was still really in the music video business. Mary-Ellis says to me, "They're never ever going to be able to afford to do a scripted daily soap opera." And about five months later, MTV realized that and they killed the deal. But in the meantime, Mary-Ellis and Jonathan Murray were creating the reality soap opera [version] and that was The Real World. Of course, MTV had never made a deal with an outside company before, so the neg­otiation took about eight months. The other thing I remember is how they had offices where USA is now. One day Doug Herzog calls them and says, "There's a guy here who wants to produce in the docuseries world but he's never done it before. Can I send him down to learn how to do it?" The guy was Mark Burnett.

Back then, what were the important points in an unscripted deal, and how have those changed?

The show had to establish itself first, but then we went in on the third season and renegotiated. I locked [Mary-Ellis and Jon] for the life of the series, so nobody else could do The Real World except Bunim/Murray. That was the first time I'd done that.

How feasible is that today?

You can do it, but you have to have the leverage. You have to have a client who people trust, who gets good ratings and who doesn't have a reputation for putting too much money in his or her own pocket.

How have deals changed most in your tenure?

The non-locking of people who created an idea — this whole [notion of] we're not going to lock you and after a year or two we can push you out as a consultant and bring somebody else in because we can get them for less money or because management changes and they don't like you — is one of the worst transgressions on the part of the buyers. When somebody creates something and it's successful, how dare a buyer have the ability to remove them from it.

Networks are more keen on owning programming, too, which would suggest the leverage has shifted. True?

Yes, drastically. When I started in the business, the networks couldn't own and they couldn't distribute. Now, you've got these vertically integrated companies that have everything, and it makes it difficult for the independent producer, which is why all these independent producers have gotten together and formed these studios, particularly in nonscripted. It gives them more leverage.

Yes, there have been a rash of production company sales to behemoths like ITV in recent years, but many have questioned whether these companies were worth their price. Thoughts?

There certainly are a lot fewer companies left to be acquired, and I'm not sure whether the deals would be as lucrative as some of them have been. You're not [buying a library], you're buying creativity. And hopefully that producer won't be so rich and lazy now and they'll be motivated for their payout somewhere down the line. The deals vary in that sometimes it's more of a cash infusion into the company, like it was with Brent Montgomery [who sold his Leftfield to ITV for $360 million in 2014] so that he could buy more companies and things like that.

Is it a bubble?

I'm not going to say there's a bubble, because everything is cyclical and there still are some very good companies out there. The question is: Do these companies want to cash in and make a deal like that or do they want to keep their freedom and leverage it into something else — maybe become part of an advertising agency or something that's nontraditional?

How do you advise clients when they come to you and ask, "Should I sell?"

Many I've told it's too soon. You have to look at each company and see what their ascension is, what's in the pipeline, what other businesses they're getting into and what the landscape looks like. There are a lot of factors.

Looking back, what's the project that got away?

I thought Lee Daniels was going to do one with Oprah once, and then they had some issues and it didn't happen. It was a sitcom called Fanny. It was about this black housekeeper from Arkansas who worked for a famous Brentwood couple. They loved her and she loved them, and they become family. Then one day, Fanny gets a call from the state of Arkansas. Her grandmother left her some land and now the state was going to buy it. She comes back from a trip home and says, "I's rich!" She got $5 million. But she didn't want to leave the family, so she buys a big, expensive house across the street from them in Brentwood and walks to work every day as their maid. It's a true story.

What happened?

Charles King [formerly of WME] was representing Lee Daniels, and Lee loved it and he called Oprah. I was on a call with them, and then something happened between them. They got back together and did Precious, but [Fanny] never materialized. There's a treatment. It's still in my drawer and someday someone will do it. The other thing that I got pissed off about was a very successful soap opera called Prisoner of Cell Block H that my client Fremantle had. It's set in a women's prison, and I tried for years to sell it. Mike Darnell bought it when he was at Fox — even though it was scripted — because he believed in it. Nell Scovell wrote the script, but Fox never went to the next step. It would have checked off so many boxes because it was campy; it would get a gay audience and a female audience and be a guilty pleasure. We tried over and over again and then, of course, Orange Is the New Black came along.

You had big success with Tyler Perry, with whom you pioneered the 10/90 format. Why have other 10/90 shows, including George Lopez' St. George and Charlie Sheen's Anger Management, both on FX, not performed as well?

Putting those shows on an upscale, snobby [network] like FX, the “HBO for basic cable,” is the wrong place to put them. They put the Kelsey Grammer one [Partners] on FX, too. They belong on a TBS, a more populist, mainstream network. I think the stars have to be aligned; it has to be the right product, and it really needs to be family [fare]. Families could watch Tyler's shows together, and that was important. But I wouldn't discount that [model] today if you could find the right mixture of elements: package, talent, subject matter.

You've had hits in daytime, too. What stands out?

One was Ricki Lake. Garth Ancier really wanted to do a talk show. He wanted to find somebody young, and he came to me with Ricki Lake. We went to three players and only one place took the chance and that was Sony. I'll never forget going to dinner with Ricki in New York on the first day of taping. We're back at her apartment afterward and there's a message from Oprah wishing her luck. She turns to me and says, "After next week, I may never be able to walk into a supermarket again by myself." The show goes on the air, and in those days a 1 or a 1.5 was a disaster, and it was doing about a 1.9. Then the word started to catch on and by December we were at a 5 rating because there was nothing like it. It just continued to grow and that next year every syndicator ripped us off. Carnie Wilson. Danny Bonaduce. …

The landscape has largely failed to produce a personality-driven hit since Oprah signed off. Why?

It's cyclical. Everyone's starting to do ensemble talk, so now there are too many of those. But if you talk to certain buyers, they'll say, "Well, we can't risk putting somebody out there by themselves.Better to have people around them, so if one doesn't work, there's a backstop." Well, if you put the right person out there on their own, it will work.

The unscripted business has struggled to produce new hits, too. How concerned are you?

Very, because it's dry all over the world. Everyone's looking for the next big format, it's about getting somebody to take a chance. And these days, everyone's afraid.

What advice would you give a 22-year-old getting into the business today?

Number one, understand the history of the business. Number two, understand your audience. You should have a populist sensibility and know what Middle America is all about. And if you really think something is salable, be smart about how you package it so that the buyer can't say no.

What does that entail?

It might mean that you have to put a celebrity talent into it that's a game-changer. Maybe you put it under the celebrity's banner or production company. Maybe it's adding some kind of a corporate integration that's appropriate. It's anything that gives it credibility. And it's got to be big and eventful and controversial; just a nice TV show isn't going to work anymore. 

You've been open about how tough the business has become. How much of that factored into your decision to say, "I'm done"?

It's a little bit of a factor, but by no means the driving factor. I'm spoiled because I've been able to innovate my entire career. I didn't take a path that most other people took. Nobody wanted to be in the nonscripted business because it wasn't as flashy, but it was great to do something that nobody else was doing. But I don't feel that I can innovate the way I [used to be] able to in this job anymore. So whatever is next for me, I want to do that again.