"He was my partner in everything," Michael King said on Sunday morning, his voice catching every so often as he spoke of his older brother, Roger King, the industry titan who died unexpectedly on Saturday at age 63.
The brothers worked shoulder to shoulder for nearly 30 years to build King World Prods. into the preeminent syndie distrib of the 1980s and '90s as the home of power hitters "Wheel of Fortune," "Jeopardy" and "The Oprah Winfrey Show," and more recently "Dr. Phil" and "Rachael Ray."
Roger King knew just about everyone in the broadcasting biz, but Michael knew Roger in a way that only a brother and trusted business partner could. (Michael is pictured at right, Roger at left.)
"The King brothers always hung out together, before there was a King World, back when we lived on what was basically a farm on the Jersey shore. Our whole family always did fun stuff together, and we were always talking about the business we revered and how we were going to grow in it," Michael said.
As Roger was always quick to state, the King clan's success was rooted in the lessons they learned from their father, Charles King, who also worked in radio and TV sales. Charles preached integrity and honesty to his six kids (two other brothers, Robert and Richard, and two girls, Diana and Karen), and the importance of always looking out for the long-term relationship over the short-term gain. Charles' fortunes in showbiz never matched that of his sons, but he was "a great salesman. So entertaining. He had a big laugh," Michael recalls.
"My dad said, 'Make a deal that both parties can walk away from smiling, and then give 'em a little more. You will do business with them your whole career.' He said you have to remember that you come in to the room with your integrity and it's the only thing you leave with. Taking every dime off the table in a deal is bad business. It's really short-sighted. We learned from that."
After Charles' death in 1972, the King siblings took over the distrib company, King World, he'd formed in 1964 after securing the TV rights to the 1930s "Our Gang" comedies, which were edited for TV consumption and dubbed "The Little Rascals." Roger was King World's new chairman, Michael was president, and other King kin did whatever was necessary to keep the company afloat.
The brothers all had experience working in radio ad sales ("very local and very hokey stuff," Michael recalled). Roger began his sales career at the Daily Record newspaper in Morristown, N.J., where he impressed by devising a way for a slew of mom and pop businesses to pool their resources into buying a double-truck ad that gave each one of them a chunk of the page under a banner emphasizing the neighborhood's business district.
King World was still very small potatoes when Roger and Michael attended their first NATPE convention at Los Angeles' Bonaventure hotel in 1978. They'd recently signed on as a sub-distrib for a larger company, Dick Colbert Television, that handled distribution for top gameshow factory Barry-Enright Prods. King World focused on selling the p.m. versions of "Tic Tac Dough" and "Joker's Wild."
"We went to our first NATPE in 1978. We'd been selling TV shows, 'Little Rascals,' etc. prior to that, but we didn't go to NATPE because we didn't have the product for that. (But by 1978) we were repping Barry-Enright pretty much east of Denver except New York and a few markets. We went to the Bonaventure hotel, and I mean, we were green. The place was packed, there was all kind of jam-ups in the elevators, and we were standing around in the lobby, looking around and I remember telling Roger, 'We have a profession. Look around. All the greatest broadcasters are here and we're part of it'....That was the beginning of the King brothers really starting to climb up in a big way. Roger loved his field and he did it better than anybody."
King World stumbled in the fall of 1982 when the brothers were hastily axed by Colbert Television in the wake of a costly flop newsmag "Soap World." They were desperate to find another show and once they set their sights on the NBC daytime staple "Wheel of Fortune," Roger was relentless in calling on "Wheel" creator Merv Griffin until he relented and cut them a deal to syndicate a nighttime version of the show.
"We really felt like we had really just one more swing to go. We were still small. We needed a good show to stay in business," Michael says."Roger worked tremendous hours studying the markets and handpicking the right stations to launch 'Wheel.' We didn't care about getting to 90% (national) clearance.
Roger went after the best stations he could get and the best time slots" to show what kind of aud the amped-up edition of "Wheel" was capable of drawing. By the end of its first season in 1983-84, "Wheel" was the No. 1 show in syndication and, incredibly, remains so today.
King World's revival of Griffin's "Jeopardy" came a year later, but in fact the brothers picked up the show six months before "Wheel" went on the air. They spent $180,000 on a "Jeopardy" pilot that looked like it was done on the cheap, so they anted up another $500,000 for a second rendition with the now-iconic blue-screen TV monitor question grid.
"We weren't wealthy then but we knew what we had to do," Michael said. "Roger always had my back and I had his."
The brothers gamble certainly paid off. King World went public in the fall of 1984, and the following year Roger and Michael were introduced to the promising young star of "A.M. Chicago" on ABC O&O WLS-TV Chicago who wanted to host her own daytime talk show. Her name was Oprah Winfrey, and the rest is, well....
As the company minted astronomical profits from its hit triumvirate, the brothers indulged themselves in the "rock star" life in some respects, Michael acknowledges, though they always took care to maintain a family orientation to their company ("King World was probably the only company on the NYSE that had a stock option program for everyone in the company, including the receptionist," Michael sez, proudly.)
The brothers worked hard and partied hard -- famously so. The highlife took a low turn for Roger in 1987 when he was arrested in Florida for cocaine possession and for a booze-fueled escapade that involved him briefly stealing a taxi cab. (Roger eventually pleaded no contest to the charges.)
"Roger wasn't perfect. He had an addiction problem," Michael said with the perspective that comes from his success at staying sober for years now. "He did silly, stupid stuff" that was fueled by alcohol and substance abuse, "and it did take away a little of his greatness, I think. Nobody could ever compete with him as a salesman, but they could hurt him with that stuff."
After the 1987 incident, Michael didn't mince words with his brother, who was even his roommate at the time. "I told him that I was sorry that after all the unbelievable work you've done, you've reduced it to a little bit of a joke (with the cab incident.) I know he listened to me."
But as Roger's track record shows -- CBS bought King World for more than $3 billion in 1999, and Roger was CEO of CBS' worldwide sales operations at the time of his death -- the hard-living never significantly interfered with his work. He could compartmentalize it in a way that some addicts can't, and in the long run, Roger slayed his drink and drug demons, Michael said.
"His love of our business, and his ambition, was greater than his addiction," he said. "That crazy stuff with the arrests -- that was a guy who had an alcohol issue. And he beat that. He was clean and sober at the end."
As Michael traveled Sunday afternoon in a car with his family to Los Angeles International Airport to fly to Florida for Roger's funeral on Thursday, he summed up our conversation (held over two calls, each lasting about an hour) with a few elegantly simple observations that suited his brother perfectly.
"Roger was a stand-up guy. He was the most stand-up guy. He never lied or cheated anyone," Michael said. "We always wanted to win in the best possible way."