Roger King 'a larger than life salesman in TV marketing'

Steve Lohr

Steve Lohr

Roger M King, a television syndication executive who helped make national stars of talents such as Oprah Winfrey, Alex Trebek and Dr Phil McGraw, died on Saturday. He was 63.

King suffered a stroke on Friday at his home in Boca Raton, Florida, and died the next day at a nearby hospital, said Chris Ender, a spokesman for CBS, where King last worked.

King joined CBS in 2000 after King World Productions, the family company he and his brother Michael built into a leader in television syndication, was sold to CBS for about R14billion.

King, according to industry analysts, shrewdly seized the opportunity created when regulations, beginning in the early 1970s, limited the three major television networks' ownership and control over programming. The regulations created a market for programming that was independently produced and syndicated.

King not only recognised the opening and spotted talent, but he also travelled the country endlessly, entertaining and cajoling local station managers. He did not create programmes, but he helped make them into nationally syndicated hit shows, working local market after local market.

"Roger King was a master salesman in a market that was ripe for innovation," said Harold Vogel, an independent media consultant in New York.

Sometimes, the King World programmes were revived versions of earlier game shows. One of them, Wheel of Fortune, hosted by Pat Sajak and the letter-turner Vanna White, has been the top syndicated show on television for 25 years, CBS said. Jeopardy, hosted by Trebek, has ranked among the top three syndicated shows for 23 years.

King's salesmanship was instrumental in transforming Winfrey's talkshow in Chicago into the top-rated daytime talkshow and a national phenomenon.

In a statement on Sunday, Winfrey called King "a larger-than-life partner who helped me launch two decades of success in syndication. I will never forget what he did for me".

In 1986, when King began selling Winfrey's programme, many station managers were reluctant to pick it up, recalled Robert Madden, a friend and former lawyer to King.

"The first reaction of a lot of them was that this was a heavyset black woman - hardly a natural TV star," said Madden, who is chief operating officer of CBS Television Distribution, which includes King World.

But, he said, King was persistent, and he had credibility with station managers because of the early success of Jeopardyand Wheel of Fortune. King's argument, Madden recalled, was that "she's quality, she's got a quality show and she's beating Phil Donahue in Chicago".

King was physically imposing as well, which seemed to make him only more persuasive. "He had what the Marines call 'command presence'. He filled a room and people remembered the first time they met Roger King," Madden said.

For a time, the constant travel and entertaining required by his job took a toll. In the late 1990s, King publicly acknowledged having battled alcohol abuse. But his last drink was in 1995.

King was the chief executive of CBS Television Distribution at the time of his death. In recent years, he had worked on several syndicated shows like Dr Phil, which is now the No 2 daytime talkshow behind Winfrey's show, and Rachael Ray, a home and family talkshow.

King's father Charles founded King World in 1964 as a syndicator of radio programmes and some television fare.

King is survived by his wife Raemali, three daughters, three brothers and two sisters. - New York Times