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The Big Rascals : The King Brothers Rule in TV Syndication

December 18, 1988|DENNIS McDOUGAL

He's a man way out there in the blue, riding on a smile and a shoeshine. And, when they start not smiling back--that's an earthquake. . . . A salesman has got to dream, boy. It comes with the territory.

--"Death of a Salesman," Arthur Miller

When they laid down Charlie King, people passed by to pay tribute to a genuine American salesman, a deal-closer of the front rank.

"My father used to say, 'Make a deal that both parties walk away from, smiling. Then give 'em a little extra,' " said son Roger. His jaw hung like a bulldog's, in awe of his father's words. "He said sales is like a deli that gives you a big sandwich. They put a little extra in it for people with an appetite. And the people come back. He was right."

Charlie King, a robust 350 pounds, sold fire alarms door to door. Once he came up with the idea for Jackpot Golf. Every hole in one at 200 yards won a new Cadillac. He never got sufficient dollars for the scheme.

Charlie never hit it big. But, fact is, he was ahead of his time. In 1964, he started something called King World Entertainment. He bought the TV syndication rights to "The Little Rascals."

But when Charlie died during a sales trip to Texas 16 years ago at age 59, victim of a heart attack, King World was almost belly up. At one point, Charlie's boys were on the verge of getting out of show biz all together and investing in a string of McDonald's.

But they didn't. Charlie's legacy continued and exploded with Roger and Michael. The boys--both big, brash, brawling Jersey guys straight out of a Springsteen rhapsody--are now multi-multimillionaires.

In the ensuing years, the kids carried King World to the top of the curious world of TV syndication with three series--"The Oprah Winfrey Show," "Jeopardy!" and "Wheel of Fortune."

As son Michael puts it, "More people recognize Vanna White than they do Nancy Reagan."

In January, they'll launch a fourth show: "Inside Edition" with David Frost. Already, stations in 29 of the nation's top 50 markets have purchased the "A Current Affair"-type half-hour newsmagazine program.

The boys are considered the King Rascals of Television. They earned profits of $100 million against $285 million in revenues for the year ending in August. Next year, Charlie's boys are looking to top the half-billion mark.

"We've always liked to sell," said Roger.

"We also like to party," said Michael.

Changing an Image

For all their vitality, the sons are not especially beloved within their industry: "These guys are bullies," said one syndication executive who deals with the Kings. (He spoke on condition that his name not be used. The King brothers should not be crossed, he said.)

For five years now, chairman Roger and president Michael have relentlessly reshaped the stereotype of the stodgy syndication salesman in the neon suit. Once dismissed as game-show schleppers, syndicators like the Kings are recognized now as the high-risk, high rollers of the business.

"You have to admire these guys," said Scott Carlin, president of Lorimar Telepictures' first-run sales division and a direct competitor of the Kings. (He sells "People's Court," a major hit in first-run syndication.) "They deserve what they get. They're colorful characters--riding around in limousines and going to world championship prize fights and renting airplanes. But that's part of their unique dynamism."

Said the unnamed executive, however, "They squeeze the last dollar they can out of every deal and push to get just a little more blood out of one more turnip. They may be ruthless, but they are clearly the premier company in show business. Every agent, producer . . . everyone with any idea to pitch goes to them first."

Said Roger, "Mike and I have sucked every brain that we respect in the industry."

Roger's dour look contrasts to the jocular, shoulder-punching style of younger brother Mike. But he is glib and in some remote ways performs like a chunky-style Rodney Dangerfield.

Michael King sat next to his big brother in King World's expansive Manhattan headquarters, lit up another Marlboro and summed up their success: "Headline: Michael and Roger, Brain Suckers."

Roger, 44, is a Kodiak bear of a man, slack-jawed, smart-alecky. He seems brash. Deeper down, though, there appears to be loads of self-doubt.

He is admittedly prone towards drug and alcohol abuse. Two years ago, he was arrested for cocaine possession, strong-arm robbery and auto theft in Fort Lauderdale. As he tells it now, he left a party "in a Mercedes and came back in a Yellow Cab." Unfortunately, he was driving the cab, having commandeered it from its driver.

The robbery and theft charges were dropped, but Roger earned two years' probation and a rehabilitation program that he now credits with changing his life.

"Drugs and alcohol put a minor dent in my little armor for a little while, but with the help of God and everything, I got through that part," he told Calendar.

"Alcohol really affects the Irish," chimed in Michael.

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