The Comedian Who Bought the Weather Channel

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Byron Allen? The man who co-hosted “Real People” in 1979 and now appears on syndicated comedy shows?

Mr. Allen is serious, though. He paid cash. Without much notice, the former comedy prodigy has a built a privately held media company, Entertainment Studios, that owns eight cable channels, produces more than 30 TV programs as the U.S.’s largest independent producer of first-run syndicated programming, operates a film-distribution company that spent $16 million to promote this month’s release of “Chappaquiddick,” and is planning to expand.

“They’re a hungry company,” says Mark Ciardi, a producer of “Chappaquiddick.”

Mr. Allen, 56 years old, owns 100% of the Los Angeles-based company. “It wasn’t necessarily by design, but it ended up being that way when you don’t have people who are interested in investing,” he says.

“There were a lot of lean years. My home went in and out of foreclosure probably 14 times. My credit was so bad, there were people who wouldn’t take my cash,” he adds, still eager to finish with a joke.

Born in Detroit, Mr. Allen as a 7-year-old moved with his mother to Los Angeles, where she landed work as a tour guide and publicist at NBC. “I would go to the studios and watch

Johnny Carson

do ‘The Tonight Show,’ watch

Redd Foxx

do ‘Sanford and Son,’ ” he says.

As a teenager, on the advice of comedian

Gabe Kaplan

(“Welcome Back, Kotter”), Mr. Allen tried performing at the Comedy Store, where he was recruited to write for the stand-up act of sitcom star Jimmie “J.J.” Walker. He got $25 for his first joke and quit his paper route.

In 1979, still in high school, Mr. Allen performed on “The Tonight Show.” By 1980, he was joking with Mr. Carson as a panel guest, quipping “I’m just doing this until I can make it as a waiter.”

Mr. Allen became co-host of NBC’s proto-reality show “Real People.” Traveling for that series, and opening as a comic for acts like

Dolly Parton,

gave him a feel for America’s tastes, he says, something he kept in mind while building his company.

“My taste is very commercial, very broad. It has to be,” he says.

Mr. Allen began his business by videotaping publicity-tour interviews with movie stars. He packaged them as a syndicated TV show and offered it to local channels free, sharing advertising revenue. “After a year and about 40,000 nos, I was able to squeeze out about 150 yeses,” he says.

Mr. Walker can’t say he predicted Mr. Allen’s success as a businessman, but he admires it and believes it was the right move.

“I think Byron knew that maybe being a producer was the better shot for him. There were a lot of good opening-act guys,” Mr. Walker says. Now, he says, “he’s beholden to no one.”

Now he produces more than 30 relatively low-budget programs, like his talk show “Comics Unleashed” and a new game show, “Funny You Should Ask,” in which contestants answer trivia questions. The company sells its shows to broadcasters and uses them to fill its own cable channels, which include Comedy.tv, Cars.tv and MyDestination.tv.

Mr. Allen has been aggressive about getting those channels into more homes. He has sued cable operators, accusing them of racial discrimination because of inadequate carriage of black-owned channels. In 2015,

AT&T

settled a suit by putting seven of his channels on its DirecTV satellite offering and U-Verse streaming-TV service. A suit against

Charter Communications

is active, while one against

Comcast

was dismissed and is under appeal.

AT&T referred to its 2015 statement: “The matter has been resolved.” Comcast said “We’ll continue to vigorously defend ourselves against inaccurate and unsupported allegations.” Charter didn’t respond to a request for comment.

Mr. Allen moved into film distribution in 2015, acquiring Freestyle Releasing, known for faith-based movies like “God’s Not Dead.” He bought shark-attack horror film “47 Meters Down,” from the Weinstein Co.’s Dimension Films. “

Bob Weinstein

literally had DVDs on a truck to be in stores,” Mr. Allen says. It was a surprise hit and earned $44 million, one of 2017’s top independent films.

Entertainment Studios raised eyebrows last fall when it won bidding wars to distribute the Christian Bale western “Hostiles” and the

Keanu Reeves

sci-fi film “Replicas.” “Chappaquiddick,” which it secured for $4 million, grossed $6.2 million in its opening weekend.

The Weather Channel is now Mr. Allen’s most widely carried channel, reaching more than 80 million U.S. homes, though he only bought the TV operation—IBM bought Weather Company’s website and digital operations in 2016 and licenses data to the TV channel.

Mr. Allen may exploit the channel’s live broadcasting capability. “Now we can turn on a news network. We can turn on a sports network,” he says.

During hurricanes and other big events it can be America’s most-viewed channel, but it also features prime-time programming that isn’t live. Weather Channel CEO

Dave Shull

says executives are exploring a “forensic weather” program that could run on Weather Channel as well as Entertainment Studios’ Justice Central.

According to media analyst

Josh Bernoff,

“there’s a high likelihood that the Weather Channel, or whatever it’s called five years from now, will not look at all the way it looks now.”

2018-04-17 14:35:00

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