The length of one’s career in Hollywood is often the source of great consternation. From stand-up comedian to entertainment mogul, Byron Allen has clearly reverse-engineered the Hollywood success playbook. With more than four decades working in show business, and a staggering roster of over 40 television shows currently on the air, Byron Allen is just getting started. The muscle that he developed writing and delivering content as a stand-up comedian, as well as receiving immediate feedback, would prove invaluable. This ability to derive lessons from every experience (positive and negative) is a huge takeaway for me. The culmination of those lessons, coupled with an incredible drive to succeed, was the initial groundwork for launching Entertainment Studios from his dining room table in 1993.
As a comedian performing nightly, Byron gained the discipline to call 1,300 television stations when pitching his first television show. That was the easy part — offering to give it away for free was much harder and, quite frankly, genius. This unparalleled knowledge of not only how shows are made, but bought and sold as well, is worthy of a Master’s class at UCLA. I was fortunate to learn from Byron that so much of business is psychological as well as knowing how to quantify value.
Byron also shares his three most important rules for business. His most recent pivot into the motion picture industry is highly anticipated and sure to challenge norms. In an era of “me-too” brands, Entertainment Studios seems unaffected by trends and remains determined to remove layers between content and the consumer. Rare and impressive, Byron Allen is a hybrid of the old and new Hollywood. Byron’s recent pledge at his first annual Oscars gala — to raise $50 million over the next 10 years for Children’s Hospital Los Angeles — further reinforces his commitment to the town he so dearly loves.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Brandingmag: You’ve had over four decades in entertainment, from standup comedian to entertainment mogul selling, producing, and distributing content for over 40 television shows. First, what was the impetus for your “behind-the-scenes” shift?
Byron Allen: Entertainment Studios started from my dining room table in 1993. It’s been quite a journey. As a kid, I would go with my mother to NBC in Burbank, where she worked as a tour guide, and later as a network publicist. While waiting for my mother to get off work, I would watch this content factory in action. Watching this first-hand really changed my point of view. As a kid I would walk the halls of NBC, going from TV studio to TV studio. I would go and watch Johnny Carson tape ‘The Tonight Show,’ and then I would walk across the hall and watch Redd Foxx tape ‘Sanford and Son,’ and then I’d go down the hall and watch Richard Pryor tape a sketch with Flip Wilson on ‘The Flip Wilson Show,’ and then I’d watch Freddie Prinze tape ‘Chico and the Man.’ I’d also watch them tape ‘Days of Our Lives.’ I’d watch them tape the local news with a young sportscaster named Bryant Gumbel and a weatherman named Pat Sajak, and then I’d go watch them do game shows. I’d go watch them tape ‘Wheel of Fortune’ and ‘Celebrity Sweepstakes.’ This experience and exposure was simply invaluable.
I wanted to make people laugh, and I knew I wanted to be in television. I loved everything about it. I loved how the writers interacted with the talent, and how the director interacted with the writers and the producers, and how the executives had to get in there and try and get their way, which is a musical, an opera—it’s just something special, the whole symphony of making television and how the talent moved, all the personalities. It was the greatest exposure a kid could ever have, spending my summers standing in the parking lot, waiting for Johnny Carson to turn the corner and pull into his parking space so I could say, ‘Good Afternoon, Mr. Carson. Good to see you today, sir.’ And he would say, ‘Hey Byron, how you doing? How’s your mother? Tell your mother I said hello. Good to see you, kid.’
I just watched Johnny Carson walk in everyday at 2 o’clock, like clockwork. He pulled into his spot at 2 o’clock sharp, and he would get out of his car with this brown paper bag lunch [laughs].
Bm: Can you imagine…a big television star walking in with his paper lunch bag.
BA: And that alone, just watching all of these unbelievable talented people in there, and how they carried themselves, their power, and how they interacted was inspirational.
“I’m not here to play the game, I’m here to reinvent the game.”
Back in the day before teleprompters, they had cue-card boys, and they would hold the cue cards and they used to flip them for you. But Johnny [Carson] had a long board that went across the length of the studio, so he would have jokes, say one through twenty, starting from left to right, as if you’re reading. Now I’ve never seen that before, and I’ve gone to a lot of tapings of a lot of shows, and I’m thinking that’s unique. And then one day I mustered up the courage to ask: ‘Mr. Carson, I noticed you don’t have the guys flipping cue cards for you.’ And he says, ‘Well Byron, that way as I’m doing my monologue if a joke doesn’t work and I’m worried about the next one, I can skip it and go to the next joke.’ At that moment, I learned from Mr. Carson that some guys play the game the same old way, and some guys reinvent the game. I’m not here to play the game, I’m here to reinvent the game.
So I started doing stand-up when I was a kid at 14 years old, and when I was 17 years old, they offered me an appearance on ‘The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson.’ I turned it down because I was still in high school. Then, right after I turned 18, I appeared as the youngest comedian ever to perform on ‘The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson.’ It went very well, and I then received a lot of television offers. I took the one show that was different, ‘Real People.’ It was a reality show. I thought, this idea is unique and different, and I thought it would work simply because it was different from the other 65 hours of prime time network television. ‘Real People’ allowed me to travel all over the country.
Now, as a comedian, what prepared me more than anything to be a writer, producer, and media executive was going all over the country as a performer to do stand-up comedy. You have to learn how to be in tune with the audience all across America and get them to respond to something, every five seconds. You develop a muscle, an intuition, a radar, that’s stronger than most because you make your living standing there with a microphone, with a spotlight, getting a reaction every five seconds. And then after doing that simultaneously, going out and doing stories for ‘Real People’ in Coshocton, Ohio and Waterloo, Iowa and Bangor, Maine—these little towns, you get to understand and you get to see America. You can’t be an impactful creator with strong instincts that only flies coast-to-coast, because L.A. and New York aren’t America. They are part of America, but the middle of the country is really what IS America.
So when I started the company, I started by calling all 1,300 television stations from my dining room table and asking them to carry the show for free. On average they all said ‘no’ about 40 times, and after about 40 thousand No’s, I was able to get 150 Yes’s. It was the hardest thing I’ve ever done, giving away a television show for free, because the whole idea was that there are 14 minutes of commercial time, seven minutes of it would be sold to national advertisers by me, and seven minutes of it would be sold to local advertisers by the local TV stations — to local car dealers, banks, and supermarkets. I had a company that said they were going to sell my ad time, they said, ‘If you get 150 stations and 85 percent of the country, we’ll sell your ad inventory.’ And I sat at my dining room table for close to a year to make that happen. It’s the hardest thing I’ve ever done; the best thing I’ve ever done.
The company that said they were going to sell my time, reneged in August. I said, ‘I have my station lineup’ and they said, ‘We’re not doing it.’ So I didn’t know anything about selling advertising time and I wasn’t going to sit there after a year of selling these television stations that this show was not going to be there. I gave them my word I wasn’t going to renege because someone had reneged on me. So for about four years, my home went in and out of foreclosure, and I couldn’t pay my bills while I put the show in production. There were days I didn’t eat, and days when they turned off my phones.
“So much of business is psychological.”
I wanted to make sure that the show got on the air and it stayed on the air. Because one of the clearances I received was a television station in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania. I called the guy up and I said, ‘Hey, where’s the contract?’ And he said ‘The guys from Paramount were in and they said that you were calling us from your dining room table, and that you were in your underwear making phone calls, and that the show wasn’t going to be on the air.’
I asked, ‘What were the guys from Paramount selling?’ He said, ‘Star Trek.’ I go, ‘Star Trek…how many guys did Paramount send?’ And he said ‘Three.’ I asked, ‘Did they have on nice suits?’ And he said, ‘Yeah, [laughs] they get paid a lot of money, they wear nice suits those Paramount sales guys.’ I said, ‘Listen up…they’re right…I am calling you from my dining room table. And I am in my underwear [laughs] but, they were wrong about one thing. The show will be there, and because they convinced you to take that time period from me, after you had given it to me, to put on their show. Let the boys from Paramount know: not only am I going to put the show on, I’m never going to cancel it.’ The show is ‘Entertainers with Byron Allen’ and 24 years later it’s still on the air.
It was that moment I realized I can’t win if my competitors can ever breach my trust with my clients. So now, that’s the one thing my studio competitors can never say ‘Byron’s show won’t be there, and it won’t stay on the air’ because now I have over 40 shows on television – seven 24-hour HD networks, one of the largest privately-held television libraries in the world, and some of our television shows have been on the air for over 20 years. So much of business is psychological. I needed to say to my competitors and to the station community: ‘Don’t ever question my constitution or commitment. That is unstoppable.’
BA: I had to learn how to sell advertising. When I was finally able to sit down with all of the heads of the movie studios, I told them: ‘You guys are spending $200-700 million a year each to tell people to go see your movies, and you’re killing each other to have your trailers in the movie theatres. I’m interviewing your movie stars for five to seven minutes and I’m showing your trailers. Help me, help you. Support me so I can be there to support you.’ I pretty much signed up all the movie studios after I showed them it wasn’t about me, it’s about them. I’m here to help you sell movie tickets.
After I solidified the movie studios, I went on the road. I sat down with the brands, the CMOs, the agencies, the chairmen and CEOs of companies and showed them our value. I said to my first 52-week-advertiser: ‘Price isn’t the reason we won’t do business, the reason will be because you won’t break bad habits of continuing to buy the same outlets who don’t give you greater efficiency. So you have to decide, do you want greater efficiency and to open up the field to create competition? Complacency is the reason you’re holding yourself back.’ So then I said to this advertiser, ‘Name your CPM and let’s get started.’ And they became our first 52-week-advertiser on the spot.
BA: I was able to turn the corner and soon we got to know all the stations and the stations got to know us. We started building up relationships with advertisers and realized that we’re a network that can put on as many television shows as we want. One day Verizon said, ‘We’re going to spend about $23 billion to bring fiber-optics to the home and be a competitor to cable and have about 150 cable channels.’ And I said, ‘I want to offer you 10 networks.’ Verizon asked: ‘How many do you have now?’ I said: ‘Zero.’ They said, ‘That’s crazy, what’s your thinking?’ I said, ‘Well I think our business is the most wasteful business. In television, if you get a 2-rating, that means 98 percent of the people didn’t see it. So could you imagine a hotel leasing 2 percent of their rooms, and then they tear the hotel down?’
Bm: When you say it like that, it’s a different perspective sure.
BA: Right, so you have 2 percent, it’s nothing, there’s no penetration. I said there’s a lot of waste; I come from a blue-collar, Detroit mentality, the automotive factory mentality. I brought that efficiency and I just said, ‘When I send a camera crew to Pebble Beach Concourse d’Elegance to shoot the car show, I don’t want them to just shoot the car show for our car network, Cars.TV, I want them to shoot the chefs at the resorts there for our cooking network, Recipe.TV, and shoot the resorts for our travel network MyDestination.TV. Shoot what’s going on in the pet community for our pet network, Pets.TV, and shoot all the celebrities there for our entertainment network, ES.TV.
Bm: That makes a lot of sense.
BA: And Verizon said ‘Brilliant! That makes a lot of sense.’ They gave me six networks, and with the flip of a switch, we turned on all six 24-hour HD cable networks on the same day in May, 2009. We made history! Verizon FIOS turned us on to all of their subscribers, and then we added AT&T, and then we added DirectTV. and we just added DISH network. Now our networks can be seen by over 80 million subscribers. I think at the end of the day you have to be very creative, efficient, and persuasive – especially when you’re starting from your dining room table with no money.
Bm: You have an unbelievable breadth of knowledge around entertainment, and so, to that end, what are the three most valuable lessons you learned while building your brand?
BA: That’s a great question. For me in business, it was always three rules:
- Don’t let anybody come in between you and the consumer.
- Don’t run out of money [laughs].
Bm: That might be a hard one! [laughs]
- Don’t break rules one and two. Stay close to the customers and keep an eye on the cash register, right?
I tell all of my executives: ‘Get it done. Don’t bring me excuses, because there isn’t a bank in the world where I can deposit excuses.’ The man who created ‘Entertainment Tonight’ and ‘Solid Gold’, Al Masini, was my mentor. Al taught me to figure out what’s NOT on television and to put it there. Fortunately, I naturally and instinctively think that way. [At the time] I was a 19-year-old kid who loved the idea of selling television shows station by station, market by market. So I made it a point to see all of the television stations in the top 100 markets, and I knew once I did that, I would be able to sell whatever I wanted. Having that direct connection with the television stations and advertisers is invaluable. That one simple concept is worth billions.
Bm: So I’m going to pivot the conservation to philanthropy. According to the Hollywood Reporter, you pledged to raise an astounding $50 million over 10 years for Children’s Hospital of Los Angeles at at your inaugural Oscars gala. Can you briefly talk about the power of philanthropy and what tips can you offer for brands looking to support a cause?
BA: I’ve always wanted to do something for Children’s Hospital. When my mom and I came here to L.A., I got an infection in my leg—a bad infection. I was in the hospital and they said, ‘If this infection doesn’t turn by tomorrow morning, to save Byron’s life, we’re going to have to amputate his leg, or this infection could spread and he could die.’ Thank God the medication worked and saved my life and saved my leg. Children’s Hospital didn’t charge my mother a nickel. You never forget something like that.
Fortunately, I’m in a position to help out, so we decided to have an Oscar party, and it was great, we watched the telecast, and then after the telecast, Babyface and Toni Braxton gave an unbelievable concert. I was able to raise a little over a $1 million. We wanted it to be the night that people would remember, a very intimate room, 350 people, invited guests only. We filled the room with very wealthy, high net-worth individuals, making it easy to raise the money. I think over a 10-year period, we can hit our goal of raising $50 million for Children’s Hospital. They save children’s lives every day. Children’s Hospital is doing the real work. I think it’s important to position people for long-term success. Obviously, health is key. For me, next would be education. I think that the greatest threat to America is not maximizing everyone’s fullest potential — and education is where it starts.
Bm: According to PSFK’s Entertainment Debrief, audiences today demand content that is meaningful and shareable within respective tribes or intimate circles. What are your thoughts on the future of branded entertainment and storytelling?
BA: Branded entertainment and storytelling have a new, wonderful marriage that allows us to tell stories and instantly distribute it globally. That new dynamic allows storytelling to have more support than ever before.
Bm: There are a lot of metrics to follow. I have another question, though, do you have a philosophy for storytelling?
BA: Yes. People naturally want to know about other people. We’re drawn to stories that help us understand our own lives. I love to entertain and inform using compelling stories.
Bm: I would be remiss if I didn’t ask your thoughts on social media as it relates to brands. How has your company utilized social media to reach new audiences? What tips do you have for burgeoning brands as it relates to social media and marketing?
BA: We’re extremely aggressive in terms of digital, over-the-top. That’s the reason we bought so many dot TVs. Social media is very important. It gives you immediate scale, like nothing else. We think it’s in its infancy and for us social media is very key. These are rapidly-changing times, you’re going to need new fresh thinking. You’re going to see it in the numbers. The market share is going to decline, and eventually you’re going to say, ‘Ah, I need some innovative approaches.’ Because you’re going to say, ‘Why am I spending the same amount of money and I just lost 5 percent of my market share? Why am I spending the same amount of money and I’m getting fewer eyeballs and my sales are going down?’ It’s going to force this Armageddon in the chief marketing offices. The CMOs will get flushed out of the system and they will get replaced by somebody who innately gets it. Now, if somebody doesn’t innately get it, it’s okay if they’re smart enough to say, ‘I got to be more open and do things differently, because the traditional methods aren’t going to get me there.’
Bm: Trademark question, what’s next? What will you do as it relates to the Entertainment Studios’ brand?
BA: What’s next for us is OTT, over-the-top, and investing more to produce premium content. We’re launching our Entertainment Studios Motion Picture division with a movie that I acquired from the Weinsteins called 47 METERS DOWN, starring Mandy Moore and Claire Holt. This is one of the best shark movies I’ve ever seen. We’re going to put it on 4,000 screens nationwide on June 16th. I’m spending $30 million to promote this film, and I can assure you, a good deal of that money is going towards innovative ideas and social media.