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OBITUARIES : Mel Harris, 1942 - 2008

Paramount, Sony executive expanded video, cable markets

September 12, 2008|Dennis McLellan | Times Staff Writer

Mel Harris, a former top television executive at Paramount and Sony Pictures Entertainment who was known as a TV, video and cable innovator, has died. He was 65.

Harris, a Malibu resident, died of cancer Saturday at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center, said his son, Chad.

After joining Paramount in 1977 as vice president of research for Paramount Television Service, a fourth TV network project that was never launched, Harris became vice president of program marketing for Paramount Television Group.

He later became president of Paramount Video and in 1985, he was named president of Paramount Television Group.

Known as an "up through the ranks" TV executive and a "savant on emerging media technologies," Harris was credited at the time for being greatly responsible for the success of the studio's television enterprises.

During his 14 years at Paramount, Harris helped steer the rise of cable TV's USA Network and the introduction of satellite distribution for first-run programming with the launch of "Entertainment Tonight."

Harris was also a pioneer of selling movies directly to the public on videocassettes, which changed the economics of the industry.

In the early 1980s, as a 1991 Los Angeles Times story noted, Harris "was among those who accurately predicted that dropping the price from around $50 to less than half that would create a market."

In 1985, the New York Times reported that movie industry analysts credited Harris' aggressive, low-pricing strategies for making Paramount an industry leader in cassette sales.

A year later, Harris was named to the Video Hall of Fame.

As president of the television group, he oversaw some of the top shows of the time and greenlighted the syndicated "Star Trek: The Next Generation."

After leaving Paramount in 1991, Harris served as president of Sony Pictures Entertainment Television Group from 1992 to 1995.

During his tenure, the company launched the Game Show Network, entered talk-show programming with Ricki Lake and became a leader in global electronic distribution.

After working as a cable TV consultant, he returned to Sony Pictures Entertainment in 1999 as co-president and chief operating officer, with responsibilities over worldwide television. Harris retired to Malibu in 2002.

"He was definitely one of the smartest guys in the business," said Lucie Salhany, a former Fox Broadcasting chairman whom Harris met at a TV station in Cleveland and brought to Hollywood in 1985 as president of Paramount's domestic television division.

"Mel, unlike many in the business in Hollywood, knew the business from the bottom up," she said. "Having started at a [TV] station, he understood the whole value chain. So what it allowed him to do was bring this wide breadth of experience to Hollywood, so he could appeal to all his buyers, and that included consumers."

Born in Arkansas City, Kan., on Oct. 9, 1942, Harris was raised on a wheat farm. While majoring in mass communications at Kansas State University in Manhattan, Kan., he worked as a morning radio disc jockey.

After graduating in 1964, Harris earned a master's degree in mass communications from Ohio University in 1965. While serving as a first lieutenant commanding a combat photography unit in the Army Signal Corps in Vietnam from 1969 to 1970, he received a Bronze Star.

In 1971, he received a doctorate in mass communications from Ohio University. The title of his dissertation was "Television Consumption Behavior: Channel Use in Relation to Channel Availability."

"It was basically a vision of today's multichannel universe," said his son, an executive at the Hallmark Channel and the Hallmark Movie Channel.

Harris launched his television career in 1971 as program manager at WKBF-TV in Cleveland, where he rose to become vice president and general manager.

After a 1974 stint as vice president and general manager of WKBS-TV in Philadelphia, he was vice president of sales development and research for Metromedia Television Sales in New York City before landing at Paramount.

In addition to his son, Harris is survived by his wife of 42 years, Ruth; his brother, Max; and two grandchildren.

A memorial service will be held at 10:30 a.m. Tuesday at El Caballero Country Club in Tarzana. Instead of flowers, donations may be made to the American Cancer Society.

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dennis.mclellan@latimes.com

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