When Byron Allen was just 14, he started doing stand-up comedy. Four years later, in 1979, he became the youngest comedian to appear on “The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson.” It was a launching pad for an entertainment career that included a stint on “Real People,” a lead role in “Case Closed,” a TV movie he co-wrote and a syndicated late-night show bearing his name.
But all along, Allen had his eyes on a much bigger prize. “Growing up in Detroit, I was fascinated by Berry Gordy and Henry Ford,” says Allen. “I read about them and about John D. Rockefeller and Andrew Carnegie. They were my heroes. I studied them and knew I wanted to build something big and iconic. That was always my desire.”
That something proved to be Allen Media Group, which encompasses Entertainment Studios (founded 30 years ago as CF Entertainment) and its expanding portfolio — the company owns 10 cable networks, including the Weather Channel, JusticeCentral.TV, Cars.TV and Pets.TV, a theatrical movie distribution company and, most recently, a growing stable of broadcast stations, with a special emphasis on stations affiliated with the Big Four broadcast networks. (The company is now in 21 markets, with 28 Big
AMG, which has nearly 2,300 employees, is, according to Allen, the largest provider of first-run syndicated shows for broadcast stations; it has more than 70 total, including nine court series in production.
And Allen’s nowhere near through, eyeing larger broadcast markets, especially on the East Coast; in September, he made his biggest splash when he publicly declared he wanted to shell out $10 billion for ABC, eight local TV stations as well as FX and National Geographic Channel, which are also Disney-owned properties. (Disney is not ready to sell and Allen has since narrowed his focus to the network and owned and operated stations.)
“When he says he wants to build the biggest media empire on the planet, he means it,” says Princell Hair, president of Allen Media Broadcasting, who joined the company last year.
In other words, Allen is Logan Roy… if Roy were warm and friendly, with an emphasis in the company on cooperation and open communication. “He is just as driven,” Hair says of his affable boss.
Allen was so intent on learning about the business side of his new field that he went to his first NATPE in 1981, before he even turned 20. TV producer Al Masini — who created and sold series like “Entertainment Tonight” and “Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous,” among other blockbuster shows — became “like a second father” to Allen. Allen was hooked and became “the Cal Ripken” of NATPE, never missing a year.
Allen was confident that behind-the-scenes experience, combined with his on-air exposure, would pay off when he went into business for himself. “I was able to meet with people and get my phone calls returned,” he says.
But early on, most of those returned calls were people saying no to Allen’s innovative ideas. “When I started calling stations from my dining room table asking them to carry my weekly television show for free, I had to work through about 50,000 nos to get the 150 yeses that became my lineup,” he recalls, explaining that he was offering seven minutes of local advertising while he’d keep the seven minutes of national advertising.
It took a year to build the lineup but then he couldn’t find advertisers to buy his national slots.
“My home went in and out of foreclosure many times over a five-year period,” he says. “My phone would get shut off, and I’d be calling people from pay phones.”
Allen survived off direct response ads for products like spray-on hair, while hustling to get movie production junkets to give him access to the stars and spaces to shoot his interviews, eating a lot of popcorn instead of more substantial meals. “I was literally starting with less than nothing, but all this came out of that burning desire to create something and to own something.”
Despite the early struggles, Allen continued to forge a unique career path. His big step forward came after reading that Verizon was investing billions to bring 150 HD channels to their subscribers. He went to them and offered them 10 channels. “And they said, ‘How many do you have now?’ and I said, ‘Zero.’”
But he sold them on his vision. “I brought Berry Gordy’s and Henry Ford’s mentality for making music and cars efficiently to making television content — that hadn’t been in the television ecosystem,” he says, explaining that he’d send camera crews to shoot a car show for one network but while there, they’d also film at the resorts for the travel channel and in the restaurants for the cooking channel and the visiting celebrities for the entertainment channel. Verizon was impressed enough to give him seven networks. “With the stroke of a pen, we launched more networks than anybody’s ever launched in a single day.”
As the company has continued expanding its production lineup and adding media assets through the years, Allen has pushed to make sure his leadership team “works together like a symphony to unlock the true value of each asset. What’s unique about our company is that no one is in a silo and that helps our culture.”
Hair says there are at least three touchpoints for the executive leadership team each week. “Everyone in every part of the company knows exactly what’s going on in the other parts of the company. If the company is going to be successful, then we all have to be in sync, and we believe in that.”
Allen wants to continue growing “organically,” making “strategic acquisitions,” which Hair says will involve a few key focal points — stations affiliated with the Big Four are crucial because they carry the NFL, a major revenue driver, while those in purple states have extra value because they draw oceans of political ad revenue.
“We’ve invested in the stations we have, in the infrastructure, personnel and research and we want to continue that, but we want to get into bigger markets, especially ones that are adjacent to our current station groups or where we have no assets,” Hair says, adding that the Weather Channel and syndication content provide cost-effective programming for any station they buy.
Currently, the company’s largest market is 65th in the nation so the short-term goal is to break into the Top 50. But ultimately, they want into the Top 10 markets, maxing out the FCC’s 39% limit. (They currently serve 5% of the country.)
Allen knows he has a long way to go but he remains optimistic. “I haven’t yet done what I set out to do — we’re tiny and while we’re growing exponentially, we’re still in our infancy,” he says. “The goal is to build the world’s biggest media company and use it to effect change for the greater good.”