Byron Allen, CEO of Entertainment Studios Discusses How He Went From Teenager to Media Titan
Robert Smith, Founder/Managing Partner of IECP Ventures interviews Byron Allen, CEO of Entertainment Studios at Greenwich Economic Forum (Greenwich, CT)
(ESG News) – Byron Allen wouldn’t have bet on himself as a baby. The Entertainment Studios CEO was born to a 17-year-old mother in 1961.
“A Black teenage mother and a little Black baby,” Allen said during a fireside chat with Robert Smith, Founder & Managing Partner at IECP Ventures, at the 2019 Greenwich Economic Forum. “I was born without civil rights.”
Of course, Allen would go on to become one of the most successful media executives in our nation’s history. Entertainment Studios operates several cable channels as well as 67 broadcast and cable programs, and Allen has been inducted into the Broadcasting and Cable Hall of Fame. During the conversation, Allen detailed his improbable rise and the creation of his media empire.
Allen was a 7-year-old boy playing baseball on the streets of Detroit when his life changed.
“I heard my mother scream like I never heard before. ‘They killed Martin. They killed my Martin,’” Allen remembers his mother shouting the day Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated. Then Allen turned and found himself staring into the barrel of a tank. In response to demonstrations and riots in the city, the National Guard had rolled in. That’s when Allen’s mother decided to get out. She took Allen to L.A. for what was supposed to be a 2-week visit to avoid the chaos that was descending upon Detroit.
Instead, Allen’s mother was accepted into a cinema and TV production master’s program at UCLA, opening up the kind of opportunity she and her young son had never thought to even dream about. That degree led to an internship and job at NBC, where Allen, as a kid waiting for his mother to finish work, found himself chatting with Johnny Carson, watching Bob Hope tape shows and marveling at a then-unknown local sportscaster named Bryant Gumbel.
Still, those were lean times for Allen and his mother, and even as he was developing visions of stardom, he also had a keen practical sense.
“People talked to [my mom] about not being able to afford me, not being able to keep me. That’s a real thing in America. People are losing their children because they can’t afford them. You hear that kind of conversation, it cuts to your core,” Allen said.
So he made it his mission to never be a liability. As a 10-year-old, Allen went to the local grocery store to get a job as a bag boy. He was denied because he was too young. In the parking lot, Allen saw a woman return a shopping cart to a machine that spit out a stamp. He asked her what this was all about, and she told him that the grocery store didn’t want carts denting and scraping cars in the lot. So, if you returned your cart, you got a stamp, and if you collected 100 stamps you were awarded $1 worth of food.
“I started working that parking lot,” Allen said. He began collecting stamps and bringing food home to his mother. “Don’t worry about me because I am never going to be a burden. I started hustling right then and there.”
That entrepreneurial spirit never left Allen, even when he got his big break. The break came when he performed to 200 empty chairs at The Comedy Store as a teenager. After he did his routine, a man approached, asking who wrote the jokes. Allen said he wrote them, and the man said the material was funny and that he was sorry Allen had to perform to an empty room.
“I said, ‘yeah, those chairs are a little fickle.’”
The man turned out to be Wayne Kline, who passed Allen’s name and number onto Jimmy J.J. “Dy-no-mite” Walker. Soon after, Walker called Allen to see if the fledgling comedian would like to write jokes with him and his team.
“Let me ask my mom,” Allen told Walker.
On the phone, Allen heard a man in the background quip about it being OK because they would feed him milk and cookies. That voice was Dave Letterman, who had just driven his pickup truck from Indiana to L.A. Jay Leno and Marty Nadler were also on the team.
Writing with such talented comedians helped Allen learn the art of crafting jokes, and it eventually led to an appearance on the Tonight Show in 1979, which then led to a spot on reality-show precursor Real People.
Then the worst and the best thing happened: Allen was fired from Real People due to a contract dispute. While it was an upsetting turn that he feared might derail his career in show business, being fired turned out to be a blessing. The job loss inspired Allen to learn about what he calls “business show.”
“I said let me know this business. Once you know the business side…I mean I have 65 shows on the air because I know the business side. We have 10 networks because we have studied the business. I know it innately. I know it like breathing,” he said.
This shift in perspective prompted Allen, as a 19-year-old, to launch his own media company from his dining room table. He relied on his gregarious nature and workmanlike acumen to market himself. At industry conferences, he talked to everyone he could, and in 1981 he connected with Al Masini, creator of Entertainment Tonight.
“I walked up and I introduced myself. ‘I understand you’re the best in the business. My name is Byron Allen, and I am here to be the best in the business.’” Allen said of his first conversation with Masini. So began a lifelong mentor-mentee relationship. “He became like a second father to me. He was so gracious with me, and so loving to me. He took to me, and he just said, ‘You are an unbelievable salesman.’”
That Allen is. To start his business, he called 1,300 television stations across the country and convinced as many as he could to carry a show he was producing. Tribune Media promised a $400,000 advance if he could get 75% of the country’s stations on board. When he succeeded, and Tribune reneged their promise, Allen was undeterred. He relied on his intuition. He contacted major movie studios and told them they should invest advertising dollars with him because his program was interviewing their biggest stars—Tom Hanks, Tom Cruise, Julia Roberts—essentially making it a 1-hour commercial for their movies.
“I looked up, and, wow, I am in business with every television station in the country, and I am in business with most major advertisers. And then I just kept smiling and dialing.”
That, more or less, has been the story of Entertainment Studios ever since. One of the company’s biggest moves in the past decade was the acquisition of The Weather Channel. That deal was possible because years earlier Allen happened to strike up a conversation in a bar with a banker named Steven Mnuchin—who later became President Donald Trump’s Treasury Secretary. That conversation in the bar got Allen an invite to Mnuchin’s 50th birthday party, which is where Allen charmed investor, Howard Marks.
As the deal to buy The Weather Channel was taking hold, it became clear that Allen would need $310 million, Allen said. So he called up his friend Howard Marks and told him about the opportunity.
“The real commodity is an unstoppable entrepreneur who can get that money back with a great return,” Allen said during the chat.
Marks agreed to loan Allen the money, so long as Allen paid it back in five years. Five months later, Allen repaid Marks in full—with a $30 million extra “thank you.” It was an unheard of return. Marks said Allen could call him anytime.
Since the purchase, The Weather Channel has increased revenue and has won an Emmy, Allen said. Not surprising, considering how successful Allen has been his entire career.
“One hundred years ago it was the industrial revolution fueled by gas and oil. Today it’s the digital revolution, and the digital revolution is fueled by content,” Allen said. “Content is the new gas and oil, and my goal is to be the Rockefeller of content.”
You’d be smart to bet on him.
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