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Influencers Transcript: Byron Allen, October 31, 2019

ANDY SERWER: Byron Allen hit it big in show business. Then he decided he wanted more. Once a star comedian and a joke writer, Allen gave it up more than 25 years ago when he launched Entertainment Studios Inc. Today, the production company counts seven TV networks to its name. On top of that, Allen made waves this year when he acquired the Weather Channel for $300 million. He's here to talk about how he turned his talent into an enterprise. Plus, he'll help us make sense of an entertainment industry in flux.

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Hello, everyone. I'm Andy Serwer, and welcome to "Influencers." And welcome to our guest, Byron Allen, who is a media mogul, CEO of Entertainment Studios, former comedian. But now you're the boss, right?

BYRON ALLEN: I'm still a comedian.

ANDY SERWER: OK, good.

BYRON ALLEN: Once you're a comedian, you're always a comedian, Andy. You never stop being a comedian.

ANDY SERWER: I'm delighted to hear that. So--

BYRON ALLEN: You have to keep the funny. There's not enough humor in the world. And there will never be enough humor in the world.

ANDY SERWER: I couldn't agree with you more. But tell us about your company and your business. Because I think a lot of people aren't familiar with it yet.

BYRON ALLEN: Ah, the company. You know, I started it 26 years ago from my dining room table and, you know, started in that-- well, you have to go back. You talk about being a comedian. You know, I started doing stand-up comedy when I was 14 years old. And my mom used to give tours of NBC. My mother was-- she went to UCLA. Got her master's degree in cinema TV production. And because she was at UCLA, they gave her a job as an intern at NBC. And she converted that into being a tour guide and then an executive in the media and the marketing department, publicity and marketing department.

And because she was a tour guide there, I used to go out there to NBC after school and in the summer, and hang out, and wait for my mom, and fell in love with television. I fell in love with just watching Johnny Carson do "The Tonight Show," Flip Wilson do his show, Redd Foxx do "Sanford and Son," Freddie Prinze do "Chico and the Man," an unknown sportscaster on KNBC, Bryant Gumbel do the sports at KBC. The weather man was Pat Sajak, who went on to do, you know, "Wheel of Fortune."

And I just watched all of these amazing, talented people making television and making people laugh. Bob Hope would come in and do his specials, George Burns. It was just the best playground on planet Earth to go to NBC, wait for your mother to get off work, and watch them make all of this unbelievable television and entertain the world.

ANDY SERWER: But you wanted to be in front of the camera at first.

BYRON ALLEN: Yeah, and I fell in love. I said, this is it. This is what I'm going to do for the rest of my life. I'm going to make people laugh and be in front of the camera. And I would just go from set to set to set and watch Johnny Carson and watch Bob Hope and watch, you know, Redd Foxx and Flip Wilson. And I started doing stand-up comedy. And I started performing at The Comedy Store when I was 13 or 14 years old.

And a guy came up to me one night after I was onstage, like first or second time I was onstage. Wayne Klein-- Wayne Klein comes up to me, and he says, wow, that was funny. I said, well, Wayne, that's the intent. He goes, who wrote those jokes? I said, I did. And he goes, how old are you? I said-- I think 13 or 14 years old at that point. He goes, can I get your phone number? I know somebody who may want to write with you. I said, sure.

And I give him my phone number, and I get a phone call from this guy. And all of a sudden, on the phone, he says, can I speak to Byron? I said, speaking. He goes, my man Wayne Klein says you're funny. And if my man Wayne Klein says you're funny, then you're funny. And I said, oh, OK, who's this? He goes, Jimmie JJ Walker.

ANDY SERWER: That's great.

BYRON ALLEN: Right? And he was hotter than the sun because he was the star of "Good Times."

ANDY SERWER: He was dynomite.

BYRON ALLEN: He was dynomite, and "Good Times" was-- thank you, Andy. And "Good Times," you know, number one show, and Norman Lear, who I love and adore. And he says, why don't you come write with us and hang out and see if we like your jokes? I go, OK, let me ask my mom. And Jimmie goes, oh, he's got to ask his mom. And I heard this smart aleck in the background, and I did not know who it was at the time. He says, oh, tell his mom not to worry. We'll have cookies and milk for him. Right? I thought, who's this joker, right?

So anyway, my mother lets me go. I go to Jimmie's apartment to write jokes with him in his living room. And sitting in his living room is David Letterman, who was the guy who said, tell his mom not to worry. We'll have cookies and milk for him. Jay Leno; Marty Natalia, who went on to write and produce "Laverne and Shirley" and "Happy Days"; Wayne Klein, unbelievable people. And Jay, at the time, was sleeping in his car, off the 405 freeway.

ANDY SERWER: Leno.

BYRON ALLEN: Jay Leno-- excuse me. Jay Leno was sleeping in his car. And David had just driven out from Indianapolis in an orange or a red pickup truck because he didn't think he was going to make it. He wasn't sure he was going to make it, and he wanted to be able to get back in his car and drive back home. And Jay Leno and David Letterman were getting 200 bucks a week to write for Jimmie, and I was getting $25 a joke.

And so I was-- I had a paper route. I had a paper route where I had to throw two papers, deliver two papers to make a penny, so, you know, delivering the "Los Angeles Herald Examiner," which is out of business. And when I got that $25 check, I thought, I've made it. I'm done. I've made it. I'm out of here. And I quit my paper route, and my paper out was the last job I ever had. And I haven't had a job since I quit my paper route and I started writing and performing and always just doing what I love.

ANDY SERWER: So but it sounds like you love that performing, and the writing, and then being on stage a lot. Then how did you transition to an executive role?

BYRON ALLEN: You know what? I learned early on, it's not show business. It's business show.

ANDY SERWER: What does that mean?

BYRON ALLEN: Business show, you have to invert that. And so I said, look. If you know-- if you learn the business, you can do as many shows as you want. And I was really fortunate. I happened to be the youngest comedian on "The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson." I did it when I was 18 right before I graduated from high school, and I was-- it went very well. You know, I was very comfortable there.

And it got me a number of offers. And one of the offers was the very first reality show-- certainly one of the very first-- "Real People." And I looked at all of the offers that were in front of me, and I said, this is the show I want to do. And my representative said, why this show? And I said, you know, instinctively, I said there's 66 hours of prime time television. At that point, 1979, you only had three networks-- ABC, NBC, and CBS. I said you have 66 hours of prime time TV. This is the only hour that's different from the other 65 hours. And I believe this show will stand out, and it will get into the top five, top 10. And it will last long enough to get me through USC Film School. That was my thinking.

And it was always numerical. I kind of saw the world numerically. Like, how do we stand out? How do we cut through? How do we make the numbers-- how do we have the numbers make sense? So turned out "Real People" did go right into the top 10, top five, Wednesday nights at 8:00, NBC. And it helped change the face of television.

And it taught me a lot about TV and taught me a lot about America. You know, because I was really out there and I was seeing everything in between LA and New York. Because that's really America. When you're in Coshocton, Ohio, and Waterloo, Iowa, and Bangor, Maine, these little towns with 300, 400, or 500 people and not even a stoplight-- one stop sign.

So I was able to really get out there and meet all the people who owned and operated the TV stations, started getting to know people who owned the ad agencies. And one day, I had a contract negotiation with "Real People" and it didn't go very well. And I found myself out of a job for about a minute. And when you get fired, you learn a lot about yourself, but it's also an opportunity to grow and go to that next level. And that's when I grew the most when I got fired from "Real People" for that short period of time. They brought me back later, and I learned the business. I said I'm going to come to New York.

ANDY SERWER: Right.

BYRON ALLEN: 1981, January of '81, my first television convention--

ANDY SERWER: Let me just sort of interrupt the flow. But let me just ask you, just tell us what Entertainment Studios owns today.

BYRON ALLEN: Oh, well--

ANDY SERWER: Like, what is your business right now?

BYRON ALLEN: Uh, what do we own today-- you know what? Before we go there, let me-- I want people to know this part-- this part of the story. Because the ownership's easy. That's the easy part. What I want them to know is that journey. The pivotal point for me was being fired and saying I'm going to learn the business side of show business. And in January of 1981, I came here to New York City.

And I met a man who became a second father to me, a mentor, Al Masini. And it was at the New York Hilton. And I said, who's the best in the business? They said, Al Masini. Said NATPE-- we were at a TV convention, television convention-- and NATPE, National Association of Television Programming Executives. And I went up to, like, the 40-something floor to meet him. And I walked in, and he was in his big, giant suite, selling his television show.

And on his pilot, he had the biggest movie star in the world on his pilot, Smokey and Burt Reynolds on the set of "Smokey and the Bandit." And he said, this show is a unique show. And he says, this is a show where I'm going to tape it at 2:30, put it on the satellite at 2 o'clock. Nobody knew what that was. I'm sorry-- going to tape it at 12:30, put it on the satellite at 2:00. Nobody knew what a satellite was. And he says, and everybody is going to run the same show at 7 o'clock. And they said, Al, what's the name of the show? He said, Entertainment Tonight.

ANDY SERWER: Oh, there you go.

BYRON ALLEN: So I watched him sell that show in January of '81, and it went on the air September of '81. And I never left his side, and he taught me a lot about creating and selling television shows. And he went on to do, you know, "Solid Gold," and "Star Search," and "Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous," and on and on and on-- and the first mini series that were not network mini series, "A Woman Called Golda" and "Hoffa." Phenomenal. And I learned a lot. And the one thing I did learn is if you learn the business, you can put as many shows as you want.

So Andy, to answer your question, our company, we have 41 shows on the air. We own nine networks and a stream-- including the Weather Channel-- and a streaming service called Local Now. That's the easy part. The hard part now is you gotta apply yourself and learn the business. And when you learn the business innately, if I wanted to, I could have 400 shows on, and I could have 40 networks. That's the easy part. The hard part was really getting there and understanding and learning the business innately. And that was the part, and it started here in New York City, January of '81. And I've gone to that television convention for 38 consecutive years, Andy. I'm the Cal Ripken of NATPE.

ANDY SERWER: You are. All right, so let's just talk about-- let's talk about some of these properties. The Weather Channel you bought for, what, $300 million. What are your plans for that?

BYRON ALLEN: You know, um, great question. You know, the Weather Channel is a very important asset. And I'm very proud of that accomplishment for a number of reasons. There aren't that many 24-hour news services in America. And you know, when you look at CNN, which is owned by AT&T, and you look at MSNBC and CNN owned by Comcast, and this is a company, the Weather Channel, that's owned by an independent. So this is a 24-hour news service that's truly independent.

And it's the best-in-class, 24-hour weather news service, no close second, voted most trusted news brand in America eight consecutive years in a row. So it's a huge responsibility to own this phenomenal asset. And I don't take it lightly. It's approaching its 30th anniversary, and what I plan to do with it is to make sure that we protect human life, that we protect lives, that we protect people and we protect their families. And we protect their loved ones. We protect their pets. We protect their assets. And we protect their businesses. We protect what they love.

And also, use it as a platform to get people to pay attention, that the environment is very important and that we have to focus on making sure we do everything we can to improve the environment. 417 consecutive months-- 417 consecutive months we've had record breaking temperature. That's a problem. The environment will kill way more people than any terrorist group, than any, you know, wars. The environment will take us out at a far greater rate than anything. Just ask the dinosaurs.

ANDY SERWER: So this has to do with climate change, right?

BYRON ALLEN: This has to do with climate change. This has to do with the environment, and the environment-- you know, you're going to create a lot of weather refugees, food shortages, medicine. You have shortages on medicine. Costs will go up on goods and services and clothing because of climate change and because of the environment and what's happening in the weather. You're going to have migration of people go from trying to cross borders. It's going to create tension, it's going to create wars. It's going to create-- it's a lot of things. You're going to have a lot of homeless people. Because when--

ANDY SERWER: You think Donald Trump's on top of that situation? You talk about climate change, immigrants, those kinds of things.

BYRON ALLEN: Here's what I will say. I don't want to debate that.

ANDY SERWER: OK.

BYRON ALLEN: And the reason I don't want to debate that is because I don't want people to lose their focus. I want people to focus on the facts. I am never going to get into that debate. But I'm always going to be the one to tell you the facts. As a human being, I want you to know the numbers and the facts to protect and save your life and your loved ones. Now, if you choose to ignore those numbers, and ignore those facts, and ignore the scientists, who are much smarter than me, that's on you. But as a human being, I will always be able to say, I shared the information with Andy that Andy needed.

ANDY SERWER: Let's talk about the deal that you've done with Sinclair about the regional sports networks and then the Bayou City Broadcasting deal. One, what do you like about sports? Two, what about this local markets transaction you just did?

BYRON ALLEN: You know, Larry Ellison from Oracle was a neighbor of mine out in Malibu. And he and I would chat a little bit out on the beach. And one day, he was over at my house, and he said, you know, I was with Rupert Murdoch earlier today, and I asked Rupert. I said, talk to me about television. How's the TV business? And Rupert said to Larry Ellison, Larry, I can tell you everything you need to know about television in 30 seconds. Do you have time? And Larry said, yeah, Rupert, I have time.

And Rupert said to Larry, one word-- sports. It's the biggest thing ever. It's the true religion of America-- sports. That's what we love, and we are religious about it. And it's a great business. It's a phenomenal business. And it will continue to be a great business.

I was pursuing the acquisition of Tribune Broadcasting. And that acquisition did not go in our favor. We did not achieve that. And so it came up at the same time as the regional sports networks, Tribune and the regional sports networks. And I decided to go after Tribune. Next Star did a phenomenal job. They beat us out of it. They got it. And so I said, OK, what are we going to do next?

And so, what's going on with these regional sports networks? They were available still, and I decided to work with Sinclair. And we acquired them from Disney. Disney had to sell them per their consent with the consent decree with the DOJ. 21 regional sports networks, and they are just-- it's a great business. And I believe we're going to be able to grow that business. I think Sinclair, who I've worked with for many, many years-- I worked with Dave Smith, who's terrific.

ANDY SERWER: Does Sinclair's politics bother you at all? I mean, they've got--

BYRON ALLEN: Politics and business, in my opinion, they don't mix. You believe what you believe, and I believe what I believe. And I love that about America. That is why America's great-- our democracy. You have your opinion. I have mine. I may not agree with your opinion, Andy, but I will give up my life to defend your right to have it. So that's different.

And Dave Smith, you know, he and I have a great relationship. Dave and I've been doing business together, the head of Sinclair, for over 25 years when he basically had two television stations-- you know, Pittsburgh and Baltimore. Now he's about 200 plus TV stations or whatever it is. So I don't let that get-- you know, get in the way. There's business and there's politics. And we can put politics aside.

ANDY SERWER: You don't necessarily agree with him, but you don't have to, is what you're saying.

BYRON ALLEN: Hey. Let's do the American thing. Let's make some money together.

ANDY SERWER: OK.

BYRON ALLEN: Right? Let's make some money together.

ANDY SERWER: All right. Let me ask you about something else going on with regard to some companies you've dealt with before, which is you have litigation outstanding against Comcast and Charter, suing them for racial discrimination. What's up with that?

BYRON ALLEN: Great question. You know, Coretta Scott King was a good friend of mine. I had bought the rights to her life story because I wanted to look at Martin Luther King through her eyes. And she said something to me that changed my life forever, Andy. She said, you know, as African-Americans, we've had four major challenges in this country. Number one, end slavery.

Number two, end Jim Crow, which I think was more damaging than slavery. Because when we were slaves, we were an asset. So you protected your slaves. But when we became free, we were no longer an asset. We were a liability. And that's when you started to murder us, and hang us, and lynch us, and incarcerate us, because you didn't want to compete with us and share that great american pie. So number two, end Jim Crow, which was the most dangerous period.

Number three, achieve civil rights. And then she choked up, and she said, number four, the real reason they killed my Martin, achieve economic inclusion. She said, Byron, they didn't kill him over the "I Have a Dream" speech. They killed him over "The Other America" speech. There are two Americas. That's the speech that he gave that they killed him shortly after, where he said there are two Americas.

One America has access to opportunity, jobs, education, mentorship. And I love this part of his speech. What does it matter if I can sit at the same lunch counter as my white counterpart, and I cannot afford the same hamburger? There are two Americas, and two Americas will not survive. We need one America. And it's as if he wrote the speech yesterday. And he wrote it over 50 years ago. And that's the speech that got him killed. Because he was pushing for economic inclusion for all Americans, especially poor, white Americans, and they killed him on the spot that he started.

So on these lawsuits, to answer your questions, when we look-- the Obama administration came to me. And I'm not a litigious person, and I've never sued anyone in my life. And the Obama administration came to me and said these corporations want to get bigger, and they want to merge. Are they good corporate citizens? And I said, the answer is not no. It's hell no.

And I'm going to do it the way I always do it-- numerically. The industry spends over $70 billion a year licensing cable networks-- $70 billion a year paying out to have cable networks on their platforms. None of that is going to African-Americans, Hispanics, Asian people, people from the gay community. And if you don't own your networks, you don't control your image, your likeness, how you're produced and distributed. And I'm talking about ownership, Andy, not to be confused with images, right?

So I had a guy ask me one day-- a white guy. He says, why does it have to be ownership? I see lots of black faces on television. And I said, you're a father, right? He said, yeah. And I said, I'm a father. I said, how would you feel if I control your daughter's image, and how she grew up, and how she saw herself, and how others saw herself? Are you cool with me, as an African-American man, having that control over how your white daughter grows up seeing herself? And he said no. And I said, why would you expect anything differently from me? There's a big difference between being on the camera and owning it.

ANDY SERWER: Right, and now the Supreme Court is going to be hearing the Comcast--

BYRON ALLEN: Well, let's finish that thought. You're jumping ahead, Andy.

ANDY SERWER: OK, I'm jumping.

BYRON ALLEN: This is too important.

ANDY SERWER: OK.

BYRON ALLEN: Let's just-- let's cover this thoroughly. So I said you need to understand the difference between being in front of the camera and ownership. This is something about ownership and controlling our image and how we're produced and seen around the world. So I said when the industry is spending $70 billion a year licensing cable networks and African-Americans get zero, that means we don't have economic inclusion. And I said, through the lawsuit, I will be able to prove that over 300 people or more have gone to Comcast and Charter and has said, can I have a cable network, and has not achieved 100% ownership on those platforms.

And what I said specifically to those networks and to those platforms-- I'm sorry, those cable operators-- is that this has to change. And when I filed the lawsuit against Charter, Tom Rutledge had a board of 11 board members. And all of the board members were white males. And I said, Tom, you're not going to have a woman who represents 60% of the global population on your board? No one of color? You have thousands of employees, and you didn't even have a chief diversity officer? I'm not the bad guy here because I am the one holding you accountable and saying that we must have a seat at the table, and we must have economic inclusion.

And that is the fourth and final chapter for African-Americans and for a better America-- economic inclusion for all Americans, including Asians, and Hispanic people, and gay people, and African-Americans-- everyone and poor white people who come from very humble beginnings. We have to level the playing field. That's the reason for the lawsuits. And it's interesting when you think about it because this is history, Andy. Charter lost in federal court in downtown Los Angeles, and they lost twice at the Ninth Circuit, because they appealed it. And the Supreme Court rejected their case.

What is that saying to Tom Rutledge? It's what I've always said to Tom. Tom, let's sit down. Let's talk. And he still hasn't accept that invitation. And to me, that says, you're not respecting me as a man and as a human being. Because I'm willing to sit down and talk to you. And I bet you if we talked man to man, human being to human being, we could resolve this in one hour. But I'll let the courts tell you if you won't let me have the opportunity to tell you. And a good leader would sit down and talk to any man that's willing to talk to him.

So to answer your question, Andy, that's why those lawsuits exist. And that's why they're very important. And that's why we've been winning, and we will continue to win. And the Ninth Circuit has accepted one nuance of the lawsuit, which is what level of discrimination did you apply. That's the only thing the Ninth Circuit-- I'm sorry-- the Supreme Court's looking at. And by the way, we're going to continue to win, we're going to win, and more importantly, we're going to change the way the world does business. And the world's going to do business with every American in a fair and equitable way.

That is the-- I'm not a woman so I can't sue on behalf of women. I can't sue on behalf of Hispanic people. I can't sue on behalf of gay people. If I could, I would. My standing is as an African-American, and I want equal access for economic opportunity for all Americans. And that's why I filed the lawsuits.

ANDY SERWER: All right. Well, thank you for explaining that. You obviously have some strong feelings there, no doubt. Let's talk about--

BYRON ALLEN: A little bit.

ANDY SERWER: Let's talk about some people you admire in the world of business.

BYRON ALLEN: Sure.

ANDY SERWER: Hollywood and then also business writ large.

BYRON ALLEN: Oh my god. You know, uh--

ANDY SERWER: You talked about Hollywood already, so let's talk about business people.

BYRON ALLEN: You know, there's a lot of people. I remember, as a kid, I loved Henry Ford. I'm from Detroit, Michigan.

ANDY SERWER: Ah, OK.

BYRON ALLEN: Yeah, my daddy worked at Ford Motor Company for over 30 years. My granddaddy worked at Great Lakes Steel for over 30-something years. These guys never called in a date sick, and they got to work an hour early every day. And my grandfather got to work and taught himself how to read and drink really bad coffee every day. So my work ethic comes from that blue collar mentality that I saw in my father, my grandfather, and my mother. So I love Henry Ford, and Andrew Carnegie, and Rockefeller, the Industrial Revolutionists. You know, they were amazing.

And 100 years ago, it was the Industrial Revolution. And today, 100 years later, it's the digital revolution. And you're seeing the exact same transformations 100 years later that the Industrial Revolution brought now the digital revolution is bringing. So I am very intrigued by what they built and how they built it. And I took their principles, and I did the same thing by building a 100% vertically integrated company, very much like Rockefeller, where he took the oil out of the ground, and he put it in his pipes, and sent it to his refineries, and put it on the trucks, and sent it to his gas stations, and put it in the gas tank, and put it in the cash register, and hit repeat.

It's the same thing. If you look at my business, I own my content 100%. That's very rare for someone to own their content 100%. I go direct to the consumer, either through my cable networks, or my broadcast television stations, or straight online with our dot TVs, comedy.tv, pets.tv. We are 100% vertically integrated worldwide, and I got that from our great American industrialists. And so I apply the same principles. I love what Bob Iger has done with Disney. I think he's phenomenal, and I love Walt Disney. I always say I'm his illegitimate son. I'm building the world's biggest media company. That's what I'm doing.

ANDY SERWER: Wow.

BYRON ALLEN: And if I'm going to build the world's biggest media company, I have to study the best if I'm going to be the best. So my goal and my commitment to myself and the people who work with me and who support me, is that we are going to build the world's biggest media company with integrity, and honesty, and inclusion. That is what we're doing at Entertainment Studios-- also Allen Media, Allen Broadcasting. It's real simple. It's a simple vision. It's a lot of fun. I'm having a great time. And I think that's the reason why we've been able to move the ball down the field.

ANDY SERWER: And we're going to leave it at that. Nothing more to be said. Byron Allen, CEO of Entertainment Studios, thank you so much for joining us today.

BYRON ALLEN: Thank you, Andy.

ANDY SERWER: You've been watching "Influencers." I'm Andy Serwer. We'll see you next time.