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Tuesday, Sep 26, 2023

TV Advocate

Henry Schleiff has a storied track record in the TV industry. He is now chief executive at Crown Media Holdings Inc., parent of the Hallmark Channel, and previously headed Court TV during its transformation from trial broadcasting to entertainment programming. While he was at the Time Warner-owned cable channel, he increased the subscriber base from 30 million to more than 85 million. He now plans to work similar magic at family-friendly Hallmark Channel by concentrating on original movies along with reruns of beloved series such as “Little House on the Prairie” and “7th Heaven.” Schleiff also serves on the boards of the International Radio & Television Society Foundation, the U.S. Fund for Unicef and the Museum of Television and Radio Media Center. He maintains offices in New York and at Crown Media’s headquarters in Studio City. Schleiff met with the Business Journal at Crown Media headquarters recently to discuss his most interesting experiences, which include getting a pilot audience drunk enough so they wouldn’t notice the show wasn’t finished.

Question: At what point in life did you know you wanted to work in TV? Did it happen by plan or by accident?

Answer: I always wanted to be in television, but I wasn’t sure in what shape or form. I went to law school, but I always thought about combining my vocation with my avocation of television. After law school, I clerked for a federal judge, then went to law firm Davis Polk & Wardwell.

Q: Where was this?

A: New York City. At the time, I was trying to write freelance not very successfully for “Saturday Night Live.” Every once in a while they would use one of my lines for Father Guido Sarducci.

Q: Why that particular character?

A: I had a specialty in dead pope humor. At the time, these popes were coming and going fairly fast.

Q: Did you get paid? Do you still get residuals?

A: No, nothing, I didn’t get a dime. But I got to see the cast. That was a catalyst to my interest in television.

Q: What was the turning point of your career?

A: After four years at Davis Polk, I went off to become assistant general counsel at Viacom. It was a leap of faith that led me to combine my interest in television with my career in law.

Q: Weren’t you still a lawyer while at Viacom?

A: Yes, I did it in the most prudent way, retaining my title of lawyer. But they were too cheap to have anyone in business affairs, so I started doing deals with talent, signing contracts with actors and producers. That got me to the attention of people at HBO.

Q: When did you convert from TV lawyer to TV executive?

A: They asked if I would be interested in giving up the practice of law and just handling business development. But they said, “We need a decision fairly quickly because we need to send you to Wimbledon for two weeks.” HBO had the broadcast rights, and I needed to learn the ropes. I think I left skid marks that afternoon at Viacom to join HBO.

Q: You worked seven years at HBO, then went back to Viacom. Why?

A: Viacom asked me to become chairman of broadcast television. I got to syndicate “Cosby,” bring in “Roseanne,” oversee television stations and foreign syndication deals. I was at Viacom from 1987 to 1992 terrific years. Sumner Redstone asserted himself, but was still learning the business and therefore let his managers run their departments.

Q: But you left again after a few years; what happened?

A: They wanted to produce more for the MTV network, so I became an independent producer. We produced everything from the film “Witness Protection” with Forrest Whittaker, all the way to the TV show “Twisted Puppet Theatre” for Showtime.

Q: Who was “we”?

A: Since I never had any idea of how to actually produce a movie no concept of what a lens is I always found partners who knew that stuff.

Q: Sounds like the opposite of micromanagement.

A: In one case I called a guy and said, “This movie is greenlit. I’m going to give it to you to produce. Just tell me when the Academy Awards are and I’ll see you there.” He couldn’t believe it.

Q: So why aren’t you still a movie producer?

A: After five years, I missed corporate. I’m the opposite of an entrepreneur in many ways. I love having people around me.

Q: Where did you go?

A: Universal Studios. I supervised everything from Maury Povich and Jerry Springer to TV stations. Then I got a call from Time Warner. They asked if I would run Court TV. At that time, it was failing. There wasn’t much downside for them to bring me in. As Dick Parsons said, “You can’t fall off the curb.” That level of expectation gave them the confidence to reach out to me.

Q: How did that work out?

A: We took a cable channel valued at $400 million when I started and sold it for $1.5 billion seven years later. When I started, Court TV was a joint venture between Time Warner and Liberty Media. At the end, Time Warner bought the other half at a total valuation of $1.5 billion.

Q: What projects do you feel really expressed your personality?

A: I spent a little time with Brandon Tartikoff at Viacom, and the first thing you learn is that it’s not about you, it’s about your audience. And you have different audiences at different places. At HBO, everything I did had an edge. At Court TV, it had a justice theme. I feel passionate about looking at the foibles of our justice system as well as its successes.

Q: Are you as passionate about programs on the Hallmark Channel?

A: On one level, it’s all warm and fuzzy. Is it the only thing I watch? Absolutely not. But when it’s done well, a movie on the Hallmark Channel can be informational, entertaining and, on occasion, inspiring. That gets me excited.

Q: If you weren’t a TV executive, what other career would you pursue?

A: There’s only one government service. I’m toying with it now. I’m on the board of UNICEF and a few other organizations. I think we’re off to a great start with the Obama administration.

Q: Did you contemplate government work long before this election?

A: I’m still living off the fumes of the Kennedy period. Don’t confuse me with the facts to me, this guy stood for progress, vigor and that one person could make a difference. Sometimes you get leaders like that, maybe even a president. Being a small role player in an administration for someone like that has great appeal.

Q: What was your craziest TV project?

A: There were so many. I’ll tell you the craziest experience. It was for a small syndicated show at Viacom called “Super Force.” We invited all these people to a pilot screening in Orlando. We even had astronauts there. My head of production comes in and says, “We can’t show the pilot. The producers absconded with the money. They didn’t even finish shooting the pilot. We only have 20 minutes of footage.”

Q: So how was the party?

A: We couldn’t cancel it. So I said, we’re going to have drinks for an hour and a half. Turn off the air conditioning. It was the hottest day of summer in Orlando, 110 degrees. People were smashed out of their minds. I went into the bathroom and in the stall next to me was Buzz Aldrin throwing up.

Q: Did your strategy save the show?

A: We screened it and the lights come up. Absolute silence for a minute and then people start clapping. They went crazy, comparing it to the work of Ingmar Bergman. We found someone else to produce the show, but it was canceled after four weeks.

Q: What was the hardest decision of your career?

A: Leaving HBO. I had a wonderful team. At that time, I don’t think anybody had ever left HBO voluntarily. There was a bond among those people. I had the most difficult professional conversation of my life with Michael Fuchs to say I’m leaving.

Q: Did you get valuable guidance from TV veterans?

A: Dennis Gillespie, senior vice president of marketing at Viacom, was the ultimate contrarian. A lot of people said Court TV couldn’t be anything but trials. But listening to Dennis in my mind, I said “Why not? Why not take advantage of the breadth of our justice system?”

Q: Anyone else?

A: Lou Weiss, retired chairman of William Morris Agency, taught me deal-making and the importance of leaving something on the table, because in this business you always come back to deal with the same people.

Q: TV often seems to have a copycat mentality cop shows, forensics shows, “American Idol” knockoffs, etc. Why?

A: Part of the demise of broadcast television has been the absence of breakthrough creativity. Cable, because it’s smaller and quirkier, can take risks that you can’t at the mother ship broadcast networks. So that’s where you see the successes of recent years.

Q: What are some genres not being produced right now that you would like to see on air?

A: A return to live television, that classic variety format like “The Ed Sullivan Show.” You see the tension in live television there’s an element of danger. People love to see the foibles.

Q: What advice would you give to people considering a career in TV?

A: I encourage people to go into this business, especially cable. I see endless opportunity for real creativity.

Q: What is your favorite quote?

A: We need to remember that quintessential William Goldman line: “No one knows anything.” He said that about the entertainment business, but looking at the economy today, maybe no one knows anything about anything. So you can continue reading this interview with that in mind.

Q. But what’s the real message?

A: People shouldn’t be afraid. Because the other side of that quote says that since there is no divine wisdom, you shouldn’t be afraid of your own instincts. Use your own gut, guided by experience and advice. That’s the real creativity of this business.

Henry Schleiff

Title: Chief Executive

Company: Crown Media Holdings Inc.

Born: 1948; New York

Education: University of Pennsylvania Law School

Career Turning Point: Left a New York law firm to become assistant general counsel at Viacom

Most Influential People: Lou Weiss, retired chairman of William Morris Agency; Dennis Gillespie, senior vice president of marketing at Viacom; Frank Biondi, former chairman, Universal Studios; Richard Parsons, chairman of Time Warner Inc.

Personal: Married with two sons, one in college, one in high school

Hobbies: “I’m passionate about golf. I wish there was some correlation between passion and ability.” Avid reader of the Hollywood trade newspapers and magazines

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