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Saban Seeks Older TV Audience : Programs: The founder of Saban Entertainment, which produces children's shows, takes the leap to prime time.

January 02, 1990|PATRICE APODACA | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Haim Saban can hardly sit still when he talks. The founder, chairman and chief executive of Burbank-based Saban Entertainment twitches nervously in his chair, cracks a joke, then jumps up and scurries across the room without explanation.

But all this energy doesn't go unused. The 45-year-old Israeli native works 16-hour days, seven days a week, trying to build his company into a diversified entertainment concern.

Since he founded Saban Entertainment in 1980, Saban has primarily produced musical scores for children's programming, as well as producing children's TV shows. His programs include "Kidd Video," an MTV-like show that ran for two years on NBC, "ALF Tales," an animated fairy-tale adventure series currently on NBC, and "Camp Candy," an animated NBC series featuring the voice of actor John Candy.

But Saban has bigger plans and is setting his sights on prime time. His company is producing six miniseries and TV movies, including "Phantom of the Opera," a miniseries starring Burt Lancaster and Charles Dance that will appear on NBC in the spring. The company is also producing its first late-night show, a comedy/variety series called "Offshore TV," hosted by the Hudson Brothers, which it plans to sell in first-run syndication.

"What happens in this city is people specialize in areas," Saban said. "We don't want to be put in any niche. We're in kids, we're in first-run syndication, we're in prime time, we're in late night, and we intend to stay that way."

Some industry veterans say the jump from daytime to prime time won't be easy. "You're dealing with a completely different type of audience," said Larry Friedericks, executive vice president of Fries International, a subsidiary of the television production company Fries Entertainment. "Having a cute little dog arfing is different than having dramatic actresses and actors," he said.

But prime-time shows can be far more lucrative than daytime children's shows, and Saban said he wants to be as diversified as possible. "Being in all those businesses allows us to hedge our bets," he said.

Since Saban moved to the United States in 1980, after a career as a record producer in France, his company has grown steadily, and in the past couple of years he's hired executives to help manage and maintain that growth. In August, he brought on Tom Palmieri, who quit his executive post at MTM Enterprises ("The Bob Newhart Show," "St. Elsewhere," "Hill Street Blues"). Palmieri is now Saban's president. In 1988 Saban also hired Stan Golden from Horizon International TV to head Saban's international distribution arm.

Palmieri said he moved to Saban because the company "reminded me of the way MTM was when I joined them nine years ago--in the early stages, with a high energy level and a lot of things going on."

In all, Saban produces or co-produces about 16 children's shows currently running on network, cable TV or in syndication. Palmieri said the company has grown fivefold since 1986 and will log "well in excess of $50 million" in revenues in 1989, although he declined to break down those figures. Since February, Palmieri said, Saban has funded more than $35 million in program production, and "everything is done out of our own working capital. We are completely debt free."

At the moment, one of Saban's most lucrative assets is its 1,050-title library of prime-time and children's programming, which includes Saban's own productions and rights it acquired to other programming by foreign and domestic companies. The library includes series such as "Unsolved Mysteries," the docudrama based on real-life crimes, as well as various animated children's series, such as foreign-made versions of "Pinocchio" and "Peter Pan."

The company distributes the titles in foreign markets such as Britain, Germany, France, Switzerland and Australia. Many of these countries have a strong demand for American-made entertainment because of the deregulation of television and the growth of satellite and cable.

To keep the momentum, Saban recently teamed with Edgar Scherick, a veteran film and TV producer who was the head of programming at ABC-TV during the 1960s. Saban/Scherick Productions, a division of Saban Entertainment, will focus on miniseries and made-for-TV movies. Scherick was a producer of feature films such as "Sleuth" and "The Heartbreak Kid," and, more recently, TV movies and miniseries such as "Little Gloria . . . Happy at Last," and "The Kennedys of Massachusetts."

Saban/Scherick's first efforts are the "Phantom of the Opera" miniseries, and "The Secret Life of Ian Fleming," a movie that will appear on the TNT cable network early this year.

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