Its KEY

How late are you up man?

In Communication, Griot, News, Self Improvement, TV Shows on October 13, 2013 at 7:10 pm
Staying up late with Byron Allen...

Staying up late with Byron Allen…

It’s 9:18a.m. on a gloomy Wednesday morning as cast and crew trickle into the spacious Culver City, Calif., studio for the day’s table read. Actor John Witherspoon shuffles over to his marked seat at a long table while director Ted Lange, of The Love Boat fame, adjusts his sued camel-colored vest before sitting just one chair over from the boss’ center seat. Writers mill about before the clock strikes 9:30, when in strolls a casually suited Byron Allen, instantly brightening the room with his megawatt smile as he greets production assistants with fist-bumps.

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“All right, everyone, let’s get started,” allen announces, slapping his script for today’s episode of “The First Family, one of two new sitcoms (the other being Mr. Box Office) that the Hollywood heavyweight is executive producing for BET’s Centric channel.

But before launching into the table read, Allen, 52, engages in a morning ritual reminiscent of a family meeting around the breakfast table. After cracking a few jokes with actor/comedian Tom Arnold, Allen shares the latest industry happenings, describing the “digital transition: that threatens television’s existing business model.

“Networks are nervous because they are having to share audiences with Hulu, Netflix and YouTube, …I never thought networks would be fighting for tenths of rating points,” he says, making eye contact with both the veterans and the table of child actors to his left before spouting statistics of ESPN layoffs and shows canned after only a few episodes. “Look, I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again: You’re going to see an Armageddon in this business.”

As heads nod in agreement and some in disbelief, the husband and father of three– Chloe, 4; Olivia, 3; and Lucas, 7 months –enthuses, “I swear to you, this right here,” she says pointing at his attentive audience, “is bigger than a sitcom because you now have to make sure you have…” pounding his hand twice, “a seat at the table.”

Whether he’s quoting Henry Ford or recalling the ratings of The A-Team, Allen does it with enthusiastic precision, as if he’s a wunderkind who has rigorously studied for a final exam. In Allen’s case, he has been studying the business of television fro more than 30 years, taking copious mental notes and mentoring others along the way.

After scoring his big break as a stand-up comedian on the The Tonight Show starring Johnny Carson in 1979, Allen turned comedy into serious business when he launched Entertainment Studios (ES) in 1993 from his dining room table. Now, 20 years later, his 75K-square-foot studio and media empire have grown to be one of the largest independently operated syndication producers and distributors for broadcast television. Allen owns eight 24-hour HD networks that specialize in genres including court shows (JusticeCentral.TV), pets (Pets.TV) and, needless to say comedy (Comedy.TV). “I never could have imagined all of this,” says Carolyn Folks, Allen’s mother, who helps executive produce his current slate of 36 series. Originally, ES outsourced syndication but soon learned the value of ownership. “We just realized that we could do it ourselves,” Folks adds.

Mr. Box Office and The First Family are being funded entirely by Allen with an initial guaranteed order of 104 episodes of each. Without bragging, he makes the half-hour sitcoms for the bargain price of $350,000 to $400,000 per episode, which translates to a minimum investment of $72.8 million. His strategy? Shows first air on local stations, then on cable days later, followed by an online run. From paying cash (rather than renting) for 16 trailers to buying a production set for just $1 from another studio, Allen, flashing on unabashed smirk, says he spends his money wisely: on the talent. With a reputation for never having cancelled a show, Allen has actors such as Bill Bellamy, Jackee’ Harry and Marla Gibbs eagerly following his vision into the future of television. “His word is it,” insists Jackee’. “He’s never lied about what he wanted to do and what he’s capable of.”

Allen is a maverick and proves, during a nonstop day of shooting and production meetings, why he believes that he who holds the power of media can run the world.

Clockwise from the Top Left: Allen watches a scene of The First Family unfolding with writer Nzinga Kemp; Jackee' gives Allen a hug before a quick photo; Even execs need a little powder and glamming up; Allen keeps a watchful eye on every aspect of the business; Tom Arnold gets excited while rehearsing lines; the writers' roundtable reworks a few punchlines in the day's script; actor Christopher B. Duncan plays President Johnson; allen cracks a joke while director Ted Lange chuckles; Family stars Kelita Smith  and John Witherspoon catch up at the morning table read.

Clockwise from the Top Left: Allen watches a scene of The First Family unfolding with writer Nzinga Kemp; Jackee’ gives Allen a hug before a quick photo; Even execs need a little powder and glamming up; Allen keeps a watchful eye on every aspect of the business; Tom Arnold gets excited while rehearsing lines; the writers’ roundtable reworks a few punchlines in the day’s script; actor Christopher B. Duncan plays President Johnson; allen cracks a joke while director Ted Lange chuckles; Family stars Kelita Smith and John Witherspoon catch up at the morning table read.

EBONY: You’re one of those Black men to won a television studio space, and 75,000 square feet is a lot of Hollywood capital. “We’re already outgrowing this space.  We were two blocks away in a 30,000-square-foot space, and we outgrew that in a nanosecond. We came here in December, and we’re already looking at other space around the area to move to because we’re adding more shows. “

The set for The First Family looks remarkably similar to Obama White House. Was that the point? I wanted it to be realistic. We bought this desk from the Nixon Library; it’s a replica of the actual desk with the door [that] opens at the bottom.  We’re not saying our show is [about] the Obamas; we’re saying this is a family in the White House, and it happens to be a Black family.  We’re trying to show the side that the average person doesn’t get to see.  We see Obama running to the helicopter and making press briefings, but what goes on in the residence? How does he juggle that as he runs the Free World?

How do you juggle being a media mogul and raising young children with your wife Jennifer? I haven’t missed a birthday party, and I’m not just talking theirs; I mean every last birthday party they go to.  [When] my wife got pregnant, I went to every doctor visit and looked at every ultrasound.  I listened intently with notes.  I pulled all three of my children from the womb, stayed in the hospital, never took an eye off of them and took them home.  I attend every school meeting and take them to school frequently.

With Magic Johnson, Diddy and Tracey Edmonds launching networks, is there room for everyone? I see it as an opportunity to work together.  They’re not competition; they’re an asset. I’d love to work Magic Johnson and P. Diddy on their networks.  We believe in being in business with everybody.

What has ES done that other networks have not been able to?  I don’t have any investors.  I’m pretty much the only one in the game using my personal money, so I compete against companies where I call them temporary hired help.  No disrespect, [but] they are temporary hired help.  I play with a different intensity because it’s my personal money.  We’re not just a network; we’re content producers, and sometimes, the content lives on our networks and sometimes it lives on others’ network.  We’re the largest provider of paid content to Google-YouTube.  They launched their paid subscriptions with 50 channels. We’re eight of those 50 channels.

As a former stand-up comic, has your goal been to provide opportunities for other comedians?  I want to make sure we’re a home for talented people, especially African Americans, as actors, comedians, writers, producers and directors.  If you go to Directors Guild of America and ask what the employment [number] of African-American directors is, it’s single digits.  It’s barely registering.  It’s not a shame on [them]; it’s a shame on me. We’ll build it ourselves.

Given the restructuring of media, including network TV, are you worried about your 72.8 million investment in these sitcoms?  The person who controls the world is the person who controls the media. That person controls what you see, what you hear and, ultimately, what you think and what you do.  Politicians are temporary hired help.  They’ll move through the system, but if you look at who is controlling newspapers, magazine and websites, that’s [who’s] influencing the decisions.  that’s really where you have true power.  It’s in media.

The Black family sitcom hasn’t been on the air in a major way since the early 2000’s.  Do audiences still want them?  There’s an audience for family sitcoms, period. They’re not made. When you have to go back a decade, two decades, to get Black family sitcoms, these sitcoms, become a precious commodity because they’re not really being produced.  People will say, “I have an appetite for this; I want to see this.

Are advertisers finally seeing the value of Black programming? Nothing has changed in 60 years.  It’s the same dynamic that [John H. Johnson] had [to deal with] 60 years ago; creating an industry to support the infrastructure.  We had to go sign up the stations market by market [in] 212 markets.  I had to basically become a walking network and go find advertisers for each idea [and] each show.  There are a lot of major advertisers who want Black dollars but they don’t support positive Black images. It’s insidious.  And we as a community are not holding certain corporations accountable.

Some compare you to Tyler Perry.  Is that a positive or negative comparison? I love what Tyler Perry is doing. I don’t think he is celebrated enough. Tyler is constantly reminding the business that the African-American consumer audience is a business, and he’s constantly putting African-Americans to work.  What he’s doing is monumental in our community.  I am disappointed in the criticism of him because I would rather see people criticize advertisers.

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African-Americans make up 25% of the box office revenue. Maybe we should make up 25% of the film slates. I think the negative energy sent his way is misdirected. Tyler is doing his part.

Do you pay attention to the haters? No, because that – [hate] – is just what it is. In television – in anything – it’s always there.

Has it been difficult to be a Black man in Hollywood’s old boys club? For me, it’s a mental decision. You just make a decision that we deserve to be there.

After 30 years, doesn’t that get tiring? The truth of the matter is, I shouldn’t be [telling] you I own the company 100 percent and I’m using my own money. I’m saying that because I had to do it that way, it’s made me unstoppable. Not having the access that my counterparts had has made them weaker, in my humble opinion. It made them house poodles. Now, it’s treacherous out there, and a lot of my competitors only know how to sail a boat on a sunny day in smooth waters. All my days have been treacherous days. This is normal weather for me.

Do you think about your legacy? I want kids to look at me and say, “Why not?” just the way I look at Bill Cosby and Henry Ford and Walt Disney and Ray Kroc [of] McDonald’s and John H. Johnson. I just want my legacy to be [that I was] somebody who was passionate, loved what he did and pursued it with all of his heart and soul. I want others to be better because of me and to benefit from it.

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Wow! Whoa! And what can I say?
I am in love with Mr. Allen today.

I did not know as much about Byron, before I read this.
He would broadcast so late at night – and I’d almost always I’d miss.

Now he’s the guy with the space that every talent wants to kiss.
He’s proof that my journey won’t sink in the industrys abyss.

I too have a vision, our in-house scripts are crafted to reflect
those values our youth should grab ahold to and connect.

Its exactly like I said before, our future is absolutely what we show them.
I’m driven to reflect the positive and fade-to-black that dim.

I’m certainly not a rapper, or else I’d have written 16-bars
and have the youth chanting truths – over beats that go hard!

Good Lord, where’s Mr. Allen’s story been all of these years?
I’m Qui
Glad
I found it when I did, so to EBONY MAG: I bid you “cheers!”

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