The latest issue of Inc. features reporter Ryan McCarthy's round-up of the notable entrepreneurs who have died this year. The list includes Liz Claiborne, The Body Shop's Anita Roddick, and Warren Avis, the rental car tycoon.
On December 8, long after that issue went to press, another remarkable company builder died. I'm speaking of Roger M. King, the co-founder (with his brother Michael) of King World Productions. If the name sounds familiar, its probably because you see its logo every week, many times a week, in fact, on television.
Roger King's company was a pioneering business in the field of television syndication. Back in the 1970s, when the federal government changed the regulations governing television programming, King realized that the Big Three networks were no longer in a position to maintain total control over what programs aired, and local affiliates had more freedom to experiment with independently-produced fare.
"Mr. King not only recognized the opening and spotted talent," The New York Times reported in its obituary of King, "but he also traveled the country endlessly, entertaining and cajoling local station managers, the analysts said. He did not create programs, they said, but he helped make them into nationally syndicated hit shows, working local market after local market."
Early on, King syndicated game shows like Wheel of Fortune and Jeopardy!, both of which were created by Merv Griffin, who also died this year. Then, in 1986, King obtained the rights to a new talk show out of Chicago with a little-known host named Oprah Winfrey. He sold it aggressively, and you know what happened after that.
Oprah's show turned out to be a once-in-a-generation cultural phenomenon that, it should be noted, not only made Winfrey a billionaire--it also became one of the most significant marketing venues on the planet. A kind word and a nod from Oprah herself could turn any product--from cosmetics to books to Uggs boots--into a best-selling juggernaut. Entrepreneurs have been among the beneficiaries of Oprah's imprimatur.
More recently, King World, which was acquired by CBS for $2.5 billion in 2000, syndicated the popular programs hosted by Dr. Phil and Rachael Ray, which suggests that the company will live on even in the absence of its charismatic founder who, at 6 feet 4 inches tall, was known as one of the most imposing and charismatic entrepreneurs in the business.
"Roger was the best sales executive this industry has ever known," Oprah told the Hollywood Reporter. "He was a larger-than-life partner who helped me launch two decades of success in syndication. I will never forget what he did for me. And this industry will never forget his legendary presence."