Kidd Stuff : A Crop of New Shows Sprouts From Saban Firm’s TV Success
Bio-Man and his squad were in danger. This time, however, their fate wasn’t resting in the hands of Zadar, the evil half-human, half-robot thug who wants to conquer the world, but two actors’ unions and a coalition of television producers locked in tense contract negotiations.
If the actors struck, Saban Productions of Studio City probably would have blown its deadline for producing the pilot for its proposed “Bio-Man” space adventure series about five kids with identical “bio-rhythms” who defend Earth against Zadar’s attacks.
Luckily for Saban, if not for mankind, the tentative contract settlement reached earlier this month allowed shooting to start as scheduled Wednesday. Now all Saban and Bio-Man have to watch out for are impatient television executives, hard-to-please sponsors and fickle viewers.
Such are the hurdles faced by Saban, one of the two or three biggest suppliers of cartoon music in the United States and Europe, as it moves into producing offbeat television shows. Saban’s first television show, “Kidd Video,” a combination of live action, animation and music videos, has been a hit for NBC in its two seasons. The show, made by Saban and the DIC Enterprises animation company in Encino, portrays the adventures of a young rock band. It consistently ranks among the top 10 in weekly ratings of children’s programs.
Besides “Bio-Man,” Saban is developing a children’s game show pitting siblings against one another; a program in which couples argue about petty matters before a referee and a one featuring friends of movie stars who tell stories about the celebrities’ personal lives. Also in the works is Macron I, a Japanese cartoon adventure series being dubbed in English and scored with hit songs that Saban is touting as animation’s “Miami Vice.”
Macron I is the only Saban Productions show in development that has been picked up for syndication to local television stations or by any of the three major networks. NBC executives, however, said they watched a trial run of the children’s game show last Wednesday night and are interested.
The shows are primarily the creation of Egyptian-born Haim Saban, 41, who handles business negotiations, and his partner, Shuki Levy, 40, an Israeli-born musician who develops the music. The two have built their partnership into a $10-million-a-year operation with headquarters in a small set of offices and studios on Ventura Boulevard, where 36 full-time employees work. The partners, who also have a record company in Paris and a concert-promotion agency in Tel Aviv, hope to build their production company into a business surpassing $50 million a year.
Haim Saban says he believes the transition from composing music for television to making TV shows will be reasonably easy, adding that developing television music wasn’t nearly as hard as he expected it to be.
“This isn’t brain surgery,” he said. “If ‘Bio-Man’ dies, maybe I’ll go on and work on something that becomes the next ‘Wheel of Fortune.’ ”
But others are skeptical. “He has lofty ideals, and I wish him luck in reaching them. But there is a substantial difference in being a producer of music and being a producer of entire television programs,” said Karyn Ulman, vice president of music for Taft Entertainment, owner of the animation companies Hanna-Barbera Productions, Ruby-Spears Enterprises and Southern Star Productions.
Saban Productions’ rapid growth has a lot to do with the close relationship it developed with DIC while supplying music to the firm. DIC, in four years, has grown from a kitchen-table operation in Westwood to a top producer of animated television shows, including “Heathcliff” and “Inspector Gadget.”
Saban also has been helped by friends in high places, among them, Phyllis Tucker Vinson, vice president of children’s programming at NBC. She said she met Saban four years ago at a time when she was fed up with what she describes as too much “Wrigley’s chewing-gum-style” music in cartoon shows. Saban, she said, has given her a more contemporary, electronic rock sound with heavy use of synthesizers in such programs as “Punky Brewster” and “Mr. T.”
Saban also benefited from entering the cartoon-music business when demand for animation programming was exploding, largely because of the deregulation-inspired rise in the number of television stations. From 1980 to 1985, the number of operating TV stations nationwide rose 36%, from 1,094 to 1,493. The increase opened up a vast market for syndication, the highly profitable means by which producers sell shows directly to stations instead of going through the networks.
While animation executives say those factors are important, they also attribute much of the company’s growth to Haim Saban’s personality. In person, he is assertive, playful and hyperactive. He paces his office as he talks, stopping to play nervously with tacks on his bulletin board or to run his fingers along the wood trim on his wall while he ponders what to say next.
In negotiations, animation executives say, he can be demanding and persistent. “I’ve been in literally hundreds of meetings with him,” said Andy Heyward, DIC’s president and a friend of Saban’s. “We’ll go for hours back and forth, with no one giving up. But he’ll find a way to make the deal happen.”
But what friends like Heyward call demanding and persistent, others consider overly aggressive.
“He is not a very easy man to deal with because he is quite aggressive. It’s not very easy to work with him,” said Catherine Gandouin, chief of the commercial department of TF1, a major French television network.
Harmony Gold, the Hollywood production company behind the animated show “Robotech,” sued Saban and his associates in 1984, charging that they reneged on an agreement to pay $53,000 for the right to distribute the music to the French cartoon show “Gigi” in France and Italy. Saban countersued, alleging that Harmony broke its end of the agreement by letting another company write new music.
The president of Harmony Gold, Frank Agrama, said he has since settled with Saban, but declines to elaborate except to say that he “is not interested in doing business with Mr. Saban at all.”
But Taft Entertainment’s Ulman, who has worked with Saban on several Ruby-Spears shows, says what bothers some people is Saban’s chutzpah , which she says is necessary to be successful in the entertainment business.
“Anybody who creates this kind of an enterprise in such a relatively short period of time I’m sure is going to step on some toes,” Ulman said.
She said she and other executives with Hanna-Barbera were at first put off by Saban’s constant telephone calls and inquiries about doing business when they met him in 1980. Eventually, she said, his persistence got him a contract to do some work for the studio.
Partners Saban and Levy have vastly different personalities.
Saban, a bachelor, is the flashier of the two and favors expensive Japanese clothes. In conversation, he flips between English, French, Hebrew, Spanish, Italian and Arabic.
“Haim talks business 50% of the time, and the other 50% of the time about women,” Heyward said.
Levy, 40, is an introspective musician with long brown hair and a beard. He is married to actress Deborah Shelton, who writes lyrics for him. She is best known for playing Mandy Winger, one of J. R. Ewing’s mistresses in the television show “Dallas,” and also the woman butchered by a drill-wielding man in director Brian DePalma’s movie “Body Double.”
Saban said he believes there is a vast amount of money to be made by producers through syndications because they sell directly to the stations.
Also, he says, stations order as many as 65 half-hours of programs a year in syndication deals so they can air shows every day. Networks usually order only 13 half-hour episodes that run only on weekends and are repeated four times a year.
Animation executives say innovative programming will be needed for Saban’s venture to work. Although Kidd Video was the top new show when it was introduced last season, DIC’s Heyward said he believes its popularity may fade soon because children appear to be tiring of music videos.
NBC’s Vinson says the program has exceeded the network’s expectations and is considered successful by the network. She acknowledges, however, that NBC and Saban did not meet their goal of launching Kidd Video’s stars as successful recording artists.
She says she believes Saban can succeed as a producer. “My expectation is that Haim will go out and hire the right people to be successful,” she said.