Video Age: Did you start in the entertainment industry with Channel 13?
Larry Gershman: I started my first job in the fall of '57 with National Television Associates. Channel 13 hadn't even been on the air. We went on the air with Channel 13 May 8, 1958.
VA: What about your time at Viacom in the International Division? What were their annual sales, and to what number did you build them?
L.G.: I remember the MGM numbers interestingly enough, but I don't remember the Viacom ones. The thing I can say most about Viacom is that it was my introduction into the international business. My background had been strictly domestic. I came out of CBS and NBC: spot sales, advertising sales and then running Channel 4 [in New York] as station manager. This was my first real exposure to the international side and I was very fortunate.
I inherited a sales staff around the world that included either the No. 1 or No. 2 person in every territory. When I came in, I said to each of them, "I'm not going to tell you how to do your business -- you're going to teach me. You tell me how I can help you. What can I do in my job in terms of getting you the product you need and making sure it's delivered on time. What is it that you need me to do?" And, in turn, each of them taught me their areas and introduced me to their people. Through them, I got to know the buyers and began what, from the first day, felt natural to me.
VA: That was networking with the buyers?
L.G.: That was meeting the various buyers and letting them know when I met them that I was supporting the person in the field. The buyers couldn't come to me to go around my people. I was supporting the person there and I respected their judgment. My field people knew more than I did, so don't come to me to overrule them. For the most part, everyone respected that. That was '76 and today I still have relationships with virtually every one of those people.
VA: Why did you leave Viacom to go to MGM?
L.G.: MGM was rebuilding at that time and David Begelman was hired by Kirk Kerkorian to rebuild the company. Begelman hired me to run worldwide sales: both domestic and international. It was a bigger job, bigger opportunity, and I went there in June of '80. Their fiscal year ended at the end of August. That August 31, total sales for domestic and foreign were $33 million.
VA: And that was significantly up from the previous year?
L.G.: No. I was only there July and August. We brought in $102 million my first full year there. What had not been done prior to that were the foreign sales. They were being done by CIC, the company that was owned by Universal and Paramount. We came in and made a deal and got the product back, but not in that first year. The first year was just reorganizing the inventory and packaging it. We put CHiPS into distribution in the United States.
In the second year, we took out CIC and formed UIP, is the international distribution company owned by Paramount, MGM and Universal. That was for theatrical and video. Television was handled separately. The next year, we bought United Artists.
VA: And that's when you launched the MGM/UA Premiere Network?
L.G.: No, that came shortly after that. MGM's acquisition of UA involved merging some of the United Artists sales staff, some of the CIC people and some of the people I hired. We reorganized the worldwide staff. Domestically, MGM's film product was being sold by United Artists. We bought it back. We set up our own sales organization domestically under Joe Tirinato.
Next was Fame. What happened with Fame was that after the feature film had come out, we made a pilot and sold the series to NBC. After 16 episodes, NBC canceled it. It was a tight call. In fact, of the NBC affiliates, all 10 on the affiliate board voted to keep the show and place it on Sunday nights at 7. But Bob Mulholland, who was president of NBC at that time and a former news director, put in a news program to compete with 60 minutes. It didn't last.
VA: Fame's original slot was Sunday at 7 p.m.?
L.G.: No, Fame was shown in prime time. Nevertheless, the show was canceled. That was in May.
The previous April at MIP, anticipating that it might be canceled, I met with buyers around the world. We had a show that was performing extremely well, and I said, "We're going to try to keep it on the air." The buyers said that it had never been done. But I said, "I need your support, I need you to give me as much money as you can. I promise you that this will be a one-off request; whatever you pay me, I will not use in any other negotiation against you. This is a very unique and unusual situation. But you have to get me some answers because when we come to L.A. in May for the Screenings, we're going to have to move really fast."
So we got to L.A. and found out that NBC was not going to renew the show. I got a hold of the people that were here, and, within a matter of two days, got commitments. In those days, the top network show internationally was probably grossing about $180,000 per hour. That would have been Dynasty or Dallas. We got about $350,000 per hour.
I then met with Bob Bennett, who was running the Metromedia stations (which are now the Fox stations). They had seven stations then, and Bob was at the Century Plaza Hotel at an ABC affiliates meeting. In one meeting with me he agreed to commit for all of his stations. I then called three other station managers and got their commitments. We had close to 50...