Michael King dies at 67; TV’s King World Productions launched ‘Oprah’
Michael King, half of the hard-charging brothers whose King World Productions distributed television sensations such as “Wheel of Fortune,” “Jeopardy!” and “The Oprah Winfrey Show,” has died.
King, 67, died Wednesday at Cedars-Sinai Hospital in Los Angeles from complications arising from pneumonia, according to his brother-in-law, Jon Felson.
When King and his older brother Roger inherited the television syndication company from their father, who died in 1972, the business was foundering. The company claimed one product — distribution rights to “The Little Rascals” — and Michael King, working out of the kitchen of his uncle’s New Jersey home, managed to gross $150 per week by peddling Spanky and Alfalfa to TV stations.
The company struck gold in 1983 when it paid $50,000 to Merv Griffin for the rights to “Wheel of Fortune.” The brothers traveled the country, lining up a roster of top markets to air the glitzy game show starring Vanna White and Pat Sajak, and “Wheel of Fortune” swiftly became the highest-rated syndicated program in history. Griffin awarded the pair the distribution rights to a revival of “Jeopardy,” and profits soared. King World Productions went public two years later.
The Kings’ stature only rose higher after they successfully launched a talk show in 1986 hosted by a former Baltimore news anchor: Oprah Winfrey. In a 1985 interview with The Times, Michael King billed Winfrey as “an exciting alternative to Phil Donahue.”
The brothers King developed a reputation for being forceful salesmen, with Michael attuned to marketing and Roger knowing station managers by name and browbeating them to pay higher rates. As their fortunes grew, they displayed a flair for showmanship. To market “Hollywood Squares” and Roseanne Barr’s short-lived talk show, they rented the Superdome in New Orleans, built a big-city skyline and hired Elton John.
“I never wanted to be a pinstripe suit with wingtips. I never wanted to be a banker,” Michael King told The Times in 1999. “We absolutely wanted to climb to the top of entertainment broadcasting. … But we sort of had, you know, that rock ‘n’ roll spirit.”
Replicating the success of its early game shows and “Oprah” proved difficult. By the late 1990s, with media companies consolidating into mammoth corporate empires and federal rule changes hurting the syndication business, the Kings looked for a buyer.
When CBS acquired King World for about $2.5 billion in stock in 1999, the company claimed the long-running news magazine “Inside Edition” and “Dr. Phil” as hits. But it was Winfrey’s award-winning show that was generating nearly half of the company’s $210 million annual cash flow in its final year.
Michael King went on to become a consultant to CBS, and Roger King, who died in 2007, became chief executive of CBS Television Distribution. Michael King later held a stake in the New Jersey Devils, the New Jersey Nets and the New York Yankees. His foray into professional sports clued him into the ever-lucrative television rights to boxing — one-time events with huge payouts.
He launched a world-class boxing gym in Carson and opened a boxing promotions company, King Sports Worldwide, which he still owned at the time of his death. King had vowed to invigorate the sport of boxing, telling the Associated Press in 2014, “If I was selling ‘Oprah’ the way they’re selling boxing, you wouldn’t know her.”
Michael Gordon King was born in New Jersey on March 8, 1948, one of six children of Charles King and his wife, Lucille.
Charles King, who founded King World Productions in 1964, freely discussed transactions at the dinner table, imbuing confidence and shrewdness into his brood.
“We went over every deal,” King told The Times in 1985. “I remember specifically telling my dad that I didn’t think some of the deals were so good at [age] 14, and he told me to go outside and rake the leaves.”
Michael King is survived by his wife, Jena; their children, Theodore, Audrey and Jesse; and Alexandra, his daughter from a prior marriage.
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