At Least HE Deserved To Be Called Mr. President

I’m yet again saddened by the passing of someone I had the chance to know and admire from up close, and considering this one came out of seeming nowhere and was far too soon it’s especially unnerving.  On an otherwise quiet and unbearably hot summer Saturday VARIETY’s Michael Schneider was among the many who reported this grim news:

Jamie Kellner, who made his name as the only exec ever to create two broadcast networks – Fox and The WB (both of which also achieved profitability under his watch), died Friday at his home in Montecito, Calif. He was 77. Kellner had a tremendous impact on the television business in the 1980s, 1990s and early 2000s, and was considered an entrepreneur at heart as he built Fox and The WB, and then independently created the Acme Communications stations group, and for a time ran Turner Broadcasting as chairman and CEO (succeeding Ted Turner).

Kellner’s impact includes landmark programming like “The Simpsons,” “Married… With Children,” “Cops,” “In Living Color” and “21 Jump Street” at Fox; the long run of pop cultural touchstones at the WB like “Dawson’s Creek,” “Buffy the Vampire Slayer,” “Gilmore Girls,” “7th Heaven” and “Felicity”; and he even worked with Lorne Michaels in the first syndication sale of “Saturday Night Live” while at Orion.

But it was more than his mere resume that made Kellner arguably as much of a broadcasting legend as anybody, and yes, I’m including the likes of Pat Weaver, Brandon Tartikoff and even Kellner’s onetime boss Barry Diller.  Kellner was an immensely likable, nuanced, inclusive and surprisingly studious executive, a rare example of someone equally adept with high-priced and high-minded creatives and bottom-line, ego-driven station executives.

Among the many tributes that Schneider included in his well-written and detailed obituary was this insightful one from his two-time right hand (both at FOX and The WB) Garth Ancier:

Jamie had a syndication background that was invaluable in knowing which stations and which alliances would make sense, and in making the whole thing work,” Ancier once told Variety. “He guided all of us through it.” 

Ancier later added: “Jamie was my mentor, my colleague and most of all my friend – he loved his life, Julie and his children, as well as great food and wine…(he)  sparked my own interest in wine, and even built his own winery from scratch near Santa Barbara dedicated to the Italian varietals he enjoyed so much. His contributions to the television industry are legendary. From founding Fox Broadcasting and The WB, to steering Turner Broadcasting and CNN… he took on each challenge with the same vigor that he brought to his own life. I will miss him dearly.”

And on the other side of the aisle, this emotional testimony from a creative that benefitted perhaps more than anyone from Kellner’s abilities:

Jamie Kellner was a titan and a visionary in our industry and yet he will be remembered by anyone lucky enough to work for him as an executive or as a showrunner as a warm, funny, charismatic, creative and kind mentor, friend, husband and Dad,” said producer Greg Berlanti. “He dedicated his life in TV to fostering and betting on generations of talent both in front of and behind the camera. I know I speak for so many others when I say my life was changed by the Camelot-esque home he created for all of us who worked at The WB. He will be greatly missed.”  

I missed on out on the WB version of Jamie, and I didn’t work directly for him.  But I did get to know him on his frequent escapes to the nearby trailer in which I toiled,  where his onetime sales and cavorting buddy Michael Lambert ran the syndication division for which I was heading research and strategy in the FOX network’s embryonic days.  While the success stories like MARRIED… and JUMP STREET are fondly remembered, there were more than a few hiccups along that path as well.  And because Jamie was the guy the station executives could complain to, he’d be the one shouldering much of the criticism and impatience when things didn’t go exactly how he had pitched it to them.  And who better than a friend like Lambert ,who was fielding similar calls from the same people about the turkeys we were peddling , to commisserate with?

And one particularly troubling issue for him was a best-forgotten part of that first FOX schedule, a comedy by name only, called MR. PRESIDENT.  Wikipedia does a better job of describing it without judgment than any of us, including the majority of the viewers it had, ever would or could:

Mr. President is an American sitcom created by Johnny Carson‘s company, Carson Productions, that starred George C. Scott and premiered on May 3, 1987.  The series centered around newly elected President Samuel Arthur Tresch, the former governor of Wisconsin.  The show takes place in the near future relative to its airing: it is mentioned in the episode “Freedom of Speech” that Tresch won the 1988 United States presidential election.  

But even Wiki couldn’t go very long without revealing exactly how much of a problem child this was:

In the summer of 1986, Johnny Carson went to the residence of George C. Scott to propose starring in a half-hour sitcom involving the day-to-day life of a man who “just happened to be the President of the United States”, complete with 13 episodes as a premiere show for the upstart Fox Broadcasting Company, which had started in April. Scott found it an alluring challenge and chance to make a show better than the status quo type of programming. The result was a show that saw Scott butt heads with the attempts to emphasize gags and topical humor to go with shtick”.

Among Jamie’s most pressing challenges was the fact that Diller absolutely loved this show, despite what the qualitative research and the early numbers trends clearly showed to the contrary.  Whatever momentum FOX built up in the earlier part of the evening would plummet at the 9 o’clock slot where MR. PRESIDENT was entrenched.  And because mature stations were running 10 p.m. newscasts where they made more money in an hour than they stood to make in the three where the network took the majority of commercial time, they were nowhere near as thrilled with FOX as those who looked at the national numbers were.   Diller was undaunted, staunchly maintaining the show had stronger competition in the hour than the earlier shows did, and needed time to catch on.  He did play poker frequently with Carson, so perhaps he was a tad biased.

So Kellner would use Lambert and a few of us as a sounding board for out-of-the-box ways to perhaps deal with this.  He admitted a full-on time period shift was out of the question both budgetarily and strategically.  But his syndication background knew that experimentation within the lineup was often a way to settle debates–get a couple of willing guinea pigs to play along, throw them a relatively small amount of bucks to buy some promotions on their air and perhaps on radio, and provide them a way to run the show in an alternative time slot.   If you got better numbers with the test case, you could use them to support doing something wider and more permanent.

We somehow landed on what many called the “:30 show” theory; others have called it the “coattails” effect.  You put a weaker show on the half-hour, especially against hour-length competition, and if it’s merely good enough it will hold enough of the lead-in audience to be sustainable.  CBS had such a show on their air at the time, the even more shticky ALICE.   We offered this Queens logic:  If MR. PRESIDENT can’t improve against ALICE, then it probably can’t cut it anywhere.

Maybe it was the wine, but Jamie responded to that.  The network selected several markets, carefully picked for a balance of higher and lower-rated ones, and flip-flopped MR. PRESIDENT with its lead-out, the somewhat better received and higher-rated DUET.  Jamie would drop in from time to time and run the numbers by a few of us who were at the time more steeped in local measurement than many on his team.   And as my division was in the midst of rolling out A CURRENT AFFAIR on a national basis, we were getting as much shelf time with the likes of Murdoch and Diller as anyone.  We were actually helpful in relieving Jamie of putting it on the network’s air which was Murdoch’s initial preference; bluntly, a still-fledgling group of de facto independent stations where the majority did not run local news was no place for what many dismissed as the “video NEW YORK POST”.  So we had built up some sort of a trust.

The test markets showed no better numbers for MR. PRESIDENT than the national lineup; indeed, homes even tuned out on the half-hour.  Jamie was now convinced the show was an albatross, so he asked us to corroborate those findings whenever the timing was right.  As we would discuss the local market dynamics of our shows, we’d casually throw in our observations about the FOX network lineup and manage to slip in our opinions—which, naturally, were Jamie’s. He ultimately was able to move it off of Sunday and use it to “launch” the Saturday night block which the network aggressively sought to claim the following fall.  The Saturday night comedies as a collective were a disaster, most far worse than even MR. PRESIDENT was.  They all went away within a year.

But none quite as noisily as did MR. PRESIDENT, as per Wiki’s coda:

The show was cancelled in the winter of 1987. Scott, describing the working situation as “positively Byzantine”, wrote an article to the Los Angeles Times relating his experience with the show within a sardonic conversation between himself and his conscience (named Sam Tresch) after he had dealt with an acute myocardial infarction in January 1988; he stated that the show had managed to succeed only in “trivializing the presidency.”.

Jamie’s instincts were spot on, as they often were.  To me, that’s no surprise, given what an open-minded student of research he was.  So much so, in fact, that he was a teacher, especially to the trade press.  FOX’s launch paralleled the launch of Nielsen’s peoplemeters, which meant demographic data was now available overnight as opposed to several weeks later (think of the current lag in time-shift and streaming data and amplify it by a far less fractionalized world).  Along with his research and publicity teams, Jamie would patiently take every trade reporter he could to lunch and explain exactly how and why adults 18-49 and adults 18-34 mattered more in the real world.   “Households don’t buy products; people do”.  Eventually, trades began to rank shows and show demographic ratings and shares in their grids.  Naturally, FOX and The WB looked far better on those barometers.  And Jamie made sure the affiliates knew it.

On my own social media feeds, numerous other colleagues besides Ancier and Berlanti expressed their deep sorrow at this news, along with similarly warm and respectful memories.  For many of us, it had been a long time since those memories had been rekindled.  But as Schneider reminded, that was as much by Kellner’s choice as anything:

Kellner retired at 57 – having owned a stake on The WB when it launched as a joint venture between him, Warner Bros. and Tribune Broadcasting. But his legacy looms large even today with both Fox and The CW, which resulted in 2006 from a merger between The WB and UPN.

The exec passed on other opportunities to return to the corporate suite. Instead, he settled into his home base in the posh Santa Barbara suburb Montecito with his wife, Julie, while pursuing other passions – including sailing around the world on his ketch called “Irishman,” playing countless rounds of golf and launching a winery in Santa Ynez Valley, Cent’Anni. An architecture buff, Kellner also designing and built numerous homes.

And there’s also a clearly telegraphed personal reminder on how he’d like all of us who knew him, and even those of you who should have, how to best handle this:

In lieu of donations, Kellner’s family “asks that you open a great bottle of wine in his honor. ” 

It’s been a while since I have.  But I plan on doing exactly that.  One can only hope this might bring a few of us together to do so.

Smooth sailing, Mr. President.

Until next time…





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