Haim Saban can hardly sit still when he talks. The founder, chairman and chief executive of Burbank-based Saban Entertainment twitches nervously in his chair, cracks a joke, then jumps up and scurries across the room without explanation.
But all this energy doesn’t go unused. The 45-year-old Israeli native works 16-hour days, seven days a week, trying to build his company into a diversified entertainment concern.
Since he founded Saban Entertainment in 1980, Saban has primarily produced musical scores for children’s programming, as well as producing children’s TV shows. His programs include “Kidd Video,” an MTV-like show that ran for two years on NBC, “ALF Tales,” an animated fairy-tale adventure series currently on NBC, and “Camp Candy,” an animated NBC series featuring the voice of actor John Candy.
But Saban has bigger plans and is setting his sights on prime time. His company is producing six miniseries and TV movies, including “Phantom of the Opera,” a miniseries starring Burt Lancaster and Charles Dance that will appear on NBC in the spring. The company is also producing its first late-night show, a comedy/variety series called “Offshore TV,” hosted by the Hudson Brothers, which it plans to sell in first-run syndication.
“What happens in this city is people specialize in areas,” Saban said. “We don’t want to be put in any niche. We’re in kids, we’re in first-run syndication, we’re in prime time, we’re in late night, and we intend to stay that way.”
Some industry veterans say the jump from daytime to prime time won’t be easy. “You’re dealing with a completely different type of audience,” said Larry Friedericks, executive vice president of Fries International, a subsidiary of the television production company Fries Entertainment. “Having a cute little dog arfing is different than having dramatic actresses and actors,” he said.
But prime-time shows can be far more lucrative than daytime children’s shows, and Saban said he wants to be as diversified as possible. “Being in all those businesses allows us to hedge our bets,” he said.
Since Saban moved to the United States in 1980, after a career as a record producer in France, his company has grown steadily, and in the past couple of years he’s hired executives to help manage and maintain that growth. In August, he brought on Tom Palmieri, who quit his executive post at MTM Enterprises (“The Bob Newhart Show,” “St. Elsewhere,” “Hill Street Blues”). Palmieri is now Saban’s president. In 1988 Saban also hired Stan Golden from Horizon International TV to head Saban’s international distribution arm.
Palmieri said he moved to Saban because the company “reminded me of the way MTM was when I joined them nine years ago--in the early stages, with a high energy level and a lot of things going on.”
In all, Saban produces or co-produces about 16 children’s shows currently running on network, cable TV or in syndication. Palmieri said the company has grown fivefold since 1986 and will log “well in excess of $50 million” in revenues in 1989, although he declined to break down those figures. Since February, Palmieri said, Saban has funded more than $35 million in program production, and “everything is done out of our own working capital. We are completely debt free.”
At the moment, one of Saban’s most lucrative assets is its 1,050-title library of prime-time and children’s programming, which includes Saban’s own productions and rights it acquired to other programming by foreign and domestic companies. The library includes series such as “Unsolved Mysteries,” the docudrama based on real-life crimes, as well as various animated children’s series, such as foreign-made versions of “Pinocchio” and “Peter Pan.”
The company distributes the titles in foreign markets such as Britain, Germany, France, Switzerland and Australia. Many of these countries have a strong demand for American-made entertainment because of the deregulation of television and the growth of satellite and cable.
To keep the momentum, Saban recently teamed with Edgar Scherick, a veteran film and TV producer who was the head of programming at ABC-TV during the 1960s. Saban/Scherick Productions, a division of Saban Entertainment, will focus on miniseries and made-for-TV movies. Scherick was a producer of feature films such as “Sleuth” and “The Heartbreak Kid,” and, more recently, TV movies and miniseries such as “Little Gloria . . . Happy at Last,” and “The Kennedys of Massachusetts.”
Saban/Scherick’s first efforts are the “Phantom of the Opera” miniseries, and “The Secret Life of Ian Fleming,” a movie that will appear on the TNT cable network early this year.
Industry veterans say the partnership with Scherick will help give Saban credibility when dealing with the networks. “It’s a smart play,” said TV producer Leonard (“Rags to Riches”) Hill. But he warned that luring Scherick was only “a first tentative step” for Saban, and that the company will need to establish a stable of successful producers in order to become a major competitive force. “The only prime-time, creative, credible entity within Saban is Edgar Scherick,” Hill said.
Saban got into show business when he started managing bands in Israel at the age of 22. He was a well-known music promoter by age 25. But when the 1973 Yom Kippur War broke out, Saban lost nearly all his money.
Starting over in France with his partner, composer Shuki Levy, Saban soon became a successful record producer. Saban Record’s first release, by a 9-year-old Israeli boy, Noam Kaniel, went platinum with sales of 2 million copies. Within seven years, the company had 15 gold and platinum records. Meanwhile, Saban Records began creating sound tracks for French TV shows and for the European versions of American shows such as “Dallas” and “Hart to Hart.”
In 1980, Saban decided to move to the United States, and after spending $150,000 to build a recording studio here, he began targeting the market for TV sound tracks. By 1983 his company had formed an association with Burbank-based DIC Enterprises, a leading producer of animated children’s programs. Saban produced original sound tracks to DIC shows such as “Inspector Gadget.” In 1985, Saban launched into program production by co-producing with DIC “Kidd Video,” a show for children that mixed animation with live action in an MTV-like format.
Phyllis Tucker Vinson, vice president of children’s programming for NBC, recalled meeting Saban in the early 1980s and being impressed with his new ideas. “We had been looking for a way to update Saturday morning music,” said Vinson. Saban “offered to do some demos for us. He came up quickly with a theme we liked. It was more contemporary and hip, and we thought kids were listening to hip music on radio and then tuning into TV and hearing babyish sounds.”
Today, Saban continues to run the business end of things, while his original partner, Levy--who is married to actress Deborah Shelton of “Dallas” fame--continues to write music.
Saban said he hopes to expand the company through acquisitions. He is also “dabbling” with a new record label and has signed his first artist, actor and musician Gary (“The Buddy Holly Story”) Busey.