Stand-up comic and reality host Byron Allen has spent the past 25 years building an entertainment empire — which many in the business have never heard of.
If you saw Byron Allen back in his 1980s heyday, either as a comedian or as the engaging cohost of Real People, you knew he was funny.
What you couldn't have known then was that he had an extraordinary knack for business. Once seen as a possible heir to Bill Cosby, Allen is now focused on trying to become the next Walt Disney.
As CEO and president of Entertainment Studios — one of the world's largest independent producers and global distributors of first-run syndicated programming — Allen has quietly built a broadcasting empire.
He owns seven 24-hour HD cable networks serving nearly 80 million subscribers, available through Verizon Fios, DirecTV, Dish TV and AT&T U-verse, among others. ES currently has 41 series, and the company's programming is available in every broadcast market in the country.
Chances are you've never heard of or seen many of these shows, or even the networks that carry them, which sport names such as Pets.tv, Recipe.tv and Mydestination.tv. ES is a content factory, cranking out massive amounts of family-friendly product at cut-rate costs, using a consumer-friendly business model Allen describes as "the Walmart of TV."
"We produce the content and take it directly to consumers, by dealing directly with the TV stations, movies and advertisers," Allen says. "We do it worldwide on all platforms and own our content 100 percent."
Comedian Howie Mandel (America's Got Talent) says of his longtime friend: "There's show business, and then there's Byron.… I don't think anyone does the business the way he's doing it."
According to Arnie Kleiner, former general manager of KABC in Los Angeles, "Byron found out what people's needs were — he didn't try to replace Good Morning America or the six o'clock news. He went where nobody had any great big franchise shows, and got rich on them."
Interviewed at the ES corporate offices high above Century City, Allen has an engaging smile, a raconteur's charm and a corner power office fit for a media titan.
On his mantel are photos of him hobnobbing with the rich and powerful: Norman Lear, Warren Buffett, Hillary Clinton. On another wall — from another life — the sport coat he wore as an 18-year-old debuting on The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson hangs like a museum piece, framed behind glass. A plaque on his desk reads, "Life Is Too Short to Be Anything But Happy."
These days, Allen has much to be happy about. Estimated to be worth more than $300 million, he lives with his wife, producer Jennifer Lucas, and their three children in a $17 million Beverly Hills mansion. He's made a fortune with his unorthodox approach to selling shows, which both maximizes his profits and benefits content-hungry stations unable to afford pricier network programs.
Unlike conventional broadcast and cable networks — which shell out millions to license shows from production companies, then recoup their money from advertisers — stations get Allen's shows for free. In return, he keeps 50 percent of the advertising time, which he sells to national brands. It's a win-win for all, but especially for Allen, who clears revenues well north of $100 million annually.
Kleiner, who acquired his fair share of ES programming, remembers being impressed by Allen's DIY ethic. "He made his own sales calls, produced his own shows, did his own writing, went to stations and got clearances."
Though you can still catch Allen on TV at odd hours of the night, hosting his long-running shows Comics Unleashed and Entertainers with Byron Allen, "I don't see myself as an entertainer," Allen says. "I'm on the business side now, pursuing the building of a global media company."
Days after the interview comes a taping of Allen's latest offering, a Hollywood Squares–like game show titled Funny You Should Ask. Hosted by Jon Kelley, it features a rotating panel of comics interacting with contestants who must decide if the celebrities' answers to questions are correct.
Today's guest stars are Jon Lovitz, Howie Mandel, Cheryl Hines, Bill Bellamy, Jackée Harry (Room 227) and Billy Gardell (Mike & Molly). All are part of the Allen repertory, Lovitz and Bellamy having starred in Allen's sitcom Mr. Box Office and Harry in another Allen sitcom, The First Family.
As executive producer, Allen is everywhere: laughing with the action on the monitors, rewriting gags with his talent, even wading into the studio audience to revive people's flagging energy. ("You… are 40 minutes from Starbucks!" he assures one guest.)
With its genial mix of comedy and quiz, FYSA fits perfectly into the Allen oeuvre of cost-efficient entertainment. The show is taped at ES's studio in Culver City, California, a one-stop shop for sitcoms, courtroom shows, reality programs and talk shows. Five episodes are taped in a day, once a week. Allen professes not to know the budget. "I just told them, 'Make it good enough to look like primetime CBS,'" he says — and it does.
The celebs seem grateful for the work; an easy camaraderie prevails. Hines, who laughingly admits to being "a little surprised to find myself doing this," appreciates that "if Byron feels anyone's uncomfortable or out of place, he takes the time to talk to them one-on-one — you don't see a lot of that in this business."
Like most Byron Allen shows, FYSA is diverse and family-friendly, a vibe that carries over to his professional life as well. Hovering nearby is his mother, Carolyn Folks, a soft-spoken woman who started ES with Allen.
She is an executive producer at the company and finds it perfectly natural to be working for her son. ("I'm always honest about the material he presents to me," Folks offers. "If I say something, I'm saying it as an executive producer, not Mom.")
Allen and Folks have been an inseparable team since they left Detroit for Los Angeles in 1968. Before that, Allen's earliest dream had been to follow in the footsteps of his father and grandfather, who worked for the Ford Motor Company. "I had the factory mentality — make it better, more efficient, more competitive," he says.
As a boy, he enjoyed hearing his parents laugh to records by popular African-American comics such as Cosby, Dick Gregory and Flip Wilson, and that made a lasting impression. "I remember thinking, 'What a wonderful way to go through life, making people laugh,'" he says. "From that point on, I knew what I wanted to dedicate my life to."
When Allen was seven, his parents split up. His mother began working as a publicist at NBC's Burbank studios, and Allen often accompanied her to work. It was, as he vividly remembers, his first exposure to a "content factory."
The early 1970s were fertile ground for comedy at NBC, and the adolescent Allen, roaming the halls and soundstages, got to sit in on tapings of The Tonight Show, Sanford and Son and Chico and the Man. "I watched Pat Sajak do the weather, Bryant Gumbel do sports, Bob Hope and Dean Martin do their specials," he recalls. By day's end, he'd sneak onto the empty Tonight Show set and sit at Carson's desk.
At 14, Allen was performing regularly at The Comedy Store. His act caught the eye of TV writer Wayne Kline.
One day Allen's phone rang. "My man Wayne Kline says you funny," said the voice on the other end. It was Jimmie Walker, of Good Times fame. He was assembling writers to create material for his stand-up act. Allen earned 25 dollars a joke; his soon-to- be-famous cowriters included David Letterman, Jay Leno and Marty Nadler (Laverne & Shirley).
At 18, Allen became the youngest comedian to appear on The Tonight Show. Waiting backstage for the King of Late Night to call his name, he reveled in the moment. "I knew, standing behind that curtain, the next five minutes would change my life." After a stellar performance, he was flooded with television offers, but it was an unheralded new NBC series with an offbeat format, Real People, that grabbed his attention.
An interview show that spotlighted the odd but compelling habits of ordinary Americans, Real People was a prototype reality show, 20 years ahead of its time.
As a cohost who crisscrossed the country, Allen learned the value of telling stories. But when a contract dispute reduced his episodes from 22 to six, he was disillusioned. "I learned then it wasn't show biz — it was business show," Allen says. "I decided I never wanted anybody to determine what I was worth, what I should be paid."
Curious about the business of television, Allen attended his first convention of the National Association of Television Program Executives (NATPE) in 1981 (he hasn't missed one since).
There, he learned about syndication from the man who would become his mentor: Al Masini, creator of syndicated gold mines such as Entertainment Tonight and Solid Gold. Masini was then introducing networks to the concept of using satellites to transmit syndicated programs.
Allen spent the next decade as a successful comedian, opening on the road for superstar musical acts like Lionel Richie and Kenny Rogers. But he was already schmoozing the connections he'd made at NATPE, even inviting station owners to join him on tour. "I was fascinated with how the local stations worked to create national networks," Allen says. "They were surprised talent would want to talk to them."
In 1993, Allen and Folks partnered to start CF Entertainment (later renamed Entertainment Studios), and Allen created Entertainers with Byron Allen, an interview show that helped Hollywood stars promote their upcoming films. In a story Allen relishes recounting, he worked the phones night and day, offering the show for free to 1,300 stations across the country. Then he had to learn how to sell his own advertising time.
Over a four-year period, Allen struggled. His home went in and out of foreclosure. "There were days when my phones were turned off and days when I didn't eat," he says. Still, "I never felt like failure was a possibility. I felt like my desire was so overwhelming, it would prevail."
Eventually, Allen wrangled support from the studios whose films he was promoting, then went on the road to lock down other national brands. He's been churning out shows ever since; the company has a library with 5,000 hours of original programming.
The blue-collar factory mentality Allen absorbed growing up in Detroit informed his approach to making low-cost television: non-union cast and crews, minimal costume and set changes, simplified scripts, accelerated schedules.
Bellamy, star of the sitcom Mr. Box Office (about a movie star sentenced to do community service as a teacher in South L.A.), recalls: "We knocked out two episodes a week. You had to know your lines. [Byron] cuts all the fat of production out. There's no time to change stuff. You get it, you go."
In 2005, when Verizon launched its Fios network to compete with satellite and cable companies, Allen persuaded the company to give him six channels — they have since expanded to seven. The most profitable among them is JusticeCentral.tv, which Allen proudly says is the largest producer of courtroom shows in the country. There are six shows, including America's Court with Judge Ross, We the People with Gloria Allred and Justice with Judge Mablean.
Janice Arouh, president of domestic distribution and marketing at Entertainment Studios Networks, explains the appeal of court television: "It's like a sport, with a beginning, middle and end, and there's a winner and loser. And these shows have some of the longest length-of-view."
When Arouh joined Entertainment Studios Networks in 2010, she called the company Hollywood's "best-kept secret." That profile changed dramatically in 2015, when Allen acquired an independent film company, Freestyle Releasing (which includes an output deal with Netflix), and entered the motion-picture business.
He made an immediate splash by rescuing the Mandy Moore shark movie 47 Meters Down. Dimension Films had planned to release it direct to DVD. Benefiting from Moore's star turn in the popular NBC show This Is Us, the film's $44.3 million U.S. box-office take made it the highest-grossing indie feature of 2017. Allen's company plans to release a sequel, 48 Meters Down, in 2019.
At last year's Toronto International Film Festival, Allen created buzz with a flurry of prestige acquisitions: the period western Hostiles, starring Christian Bale and Rosamund Pike; the Keanu Reeves sci-fi film Replicas; and Chappaquiddick, about the infamous 1969 Ted Kennedy tragedy. Recently, Allen made his first foray into animation with Animal Crackers, a family film scheduled for release this year.
"We're chasing what the big studios don't want: the films making $30 million to $60 million at the box office," Allen says. "We're looking to acquire 12 to 17 films a year."
ES continues to expand into other arenas. The company has invested heavily in digital publishing, having purchased The Grio, an online news and entertainment site geared toward African Americans, in 2016. Allen also talks excitedly about Sports.tv, the company's streaming over-the-top global sports platform, which he describes as "Netflix meets sports, aggregating all sports content direct to the consumer for a price."
He has also used his growing power and influence in Hollywood to fight for diversity, as the plaintiff in a $10 billion racial-discrimination lawsuit against Charter Communications and a $20 billion suit against Comcast. Allen calls the lawsuits "historic and important."
"The industry spends $70 billion a year licensing cable networks," he says. "Not one penny goes to African-American–owned media. Nothing on Comcast's platform is African-American–owned. They're the largest cable operator, and 40 percent of their revenue comes from African-American households, but we do not participate in that economic pot."
He will also continue to present positive images of African Americans on screen. "Television has an enormous impact on how people see themselves," Allen says. "It's important to have a seat at the table to be able to control how your image is depicted around the world."
This article originally appeared in emmy magazine, Issue No. 1, 2018