28 Jan Byron Allen Learned How to Make ‘Em Laugh First
To truly understand how Byron Allen, the guy from “Real People,” became Byron Allenthe media mogul that owns the Weather Channel, you have to hear his story about the courtroom set that needed a home.
The CEO and president of Entertainment Studios, one of the largest distributors and independent producers of first-run syndicated programming in the world, was in the process creating his JusticeCentral.tv network on Verizon Fios when he called his set designer, who informed Allen a big studio had canceled a court show and was going to throw away the program’s $500,000 set.
“I said, ‘Please call them and tell them don’t touch it, and I will give them a $1 for that set,’” Allen recalls. “You laugh, and he laughed, but they were going to spend between $50,000 and $100,000 worth of manpower to strike that set and throw it in a Dumpster. All they had to do was accept my $1 and I’d be saving them upwards of $100,000. Well, he called me back and the studio accepted my offer. We shot the first pilot episode and we launched our first court show, ‘America’s Court With Judge Ross.’”
Since purchasing the cheapest set known to man nearly nine years ago, Entertainment Studios has become the largest producer of court shows. At the height there were six; now five remain. “We the People With Gloria Allred” got canceled due to low ratings. But Allen, who interchangeably calls his company both the Ford auto plant of production studios and the Motown of production studios (he is a Detroit native, after all), scrappily maximizes resources and profits.
For more than two decades, Allen, who started performing standup at age 14 at the Comedy Store, has quietly been building his media empire, which got its start on his dining room table.
“When Byron came to me and said he wanted to do standup comedy at such a young age, he came prepared with all this research supporting his dream, and I said, ‘Why not?,’” says his mother, Carolyn Folks, who worked as an NBC publicist when Byron was a kid and often brought him to work. “Now I work for Byron and he’s the one building an empire and saying, ‘Why not?’”
One of Allen’s biggest breaks came in 2009, when Verizon Fios gave him the platform to create six channels. “We brought that Henry Ford, Detroit, industrial revolution way of making cars to making content,” Allen says. “While I was at ‘Real People,’ there were crews who worked for two hours but tried to get paid for 12. Now, when I send a camera crew and producers to Pebble Beach, to cover the car show Concours d’Elegance, I don’t want them to just shoot the car show for our 24-hour car network Cars.tv, which we won an Emmy for, I’m happy to say.
“They’ll also shoot for our travel channel, MyDestination.tv, and shoot the chefs out there for our cooking channel Recipe.tv. Then they’ll see what’s going on in the pet community for our pet channel, Pets.tv, and shoot what’s going on with all the movie stars that come to the car show for our entertainment channel, ES.tv.”
But Allen’s biggest headline grabbing moment came in March when he purchased the Weather Channel. “A TV executive friend said, ‘The way you think, the way you manage and operate, you would be the perfect owner of the Weather Channel.’” Allen says. “We bought it and now that’s our eighth network.”
In 2015, Allen also bought a movie distribution company called Freestyle Releasing, which includes an output deal with Netflix. Its most profitable release to date is “47 Meters Down,” the biggest independent movie of summer 2017. The Mandy Moore starrer grossed $44 million.
“I bought Freestyle Releasing because it gave us the opportunity to work directly with movie theaters,” Allen says. “When you’re a comedian and you stand on stage making a living making people laugh every six seconds, you develop an instinct and a connection with the audience that no other profession has.”
It’s that kind of connection that attracted George Schlatter, Allen’s “Real People” boss. Schlatter and his wife, Jolene Brand, had spotted Allen – the youngest comedian to perform on “The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson” – during his debut in 1979, when he had graduated from high school at age 18.
“‘Real People’ had taken off but we had no young hosts and no one was black. We were watching ‘Johnny Carson’ and saw Byron and thought he was cute,” Schlatter remembers. “He came in the office and I put him on to do six shows. There was no audition. I had seen all I needed to see on ‘The Tonight Show.’ Byron was bright, articulate and fun, and everybody liked him.”
Allen co-hosted for five years until the show came to an end in 1984. A series ahead of its time, “Real People” spotlighted everyday heroes and laid the groundwork for what we now know as reality television.
“George Schlatter is an amazing man,” Allen says. “He is a phenomenal producer. He’s brilliant. To have him come in my life when I was 18 was a gift to me.
“He’s a great example and a great mentor to watch how he interacted with everybody. When someone was being bullied, he stepped in to shut the bully down. I really learned a lot from him and he’s very much a part of my DNA.”
But Allen’s time on “Real People” had its low points, too. There was a contract dispute and Allen’s airtime got slashed from 22 episodes to six. Though it was humbling, Allen says he learned a valuable lesson. “Never again will I let someone else determine what I’m worth and what I should be paid,” he says.
During this period, Allen started attending NATPE and met future mentors such as the late Al Masini, the creator behind “Star Search” and “Entertainment Tonight.” “[Masini] helped teach me the business,” Allen says.
Then there was Jimmie Walker, who gave Allen his first break, hiring the teenager as a $25 a joke writer. Walker, who has a special on Starz, says he admires Allen and his ability to create his own opportunities. Walker, who once starred on the hit sitcom “Good Times,” also hired then-unknowns Jay Leno and David Letterman to write for him.
“Everyone needs a chance starting out, and I gave Byron his first chance,” says Walker, who heard about Allen’s Comedy Store standup act from a mutual friend, TV writer Wayne Kline. “What set Byron apart is that he was enthused. Unlike some of my writers, he was just happy to be there.
And that is still what sets him apart.
“Others like Letterman and Pryor and Kaufman had industry promotion – big agencies that said they loved those guys,” Walker says. “Byron didn’t have an industry push and you have to give him credit for doing it all on his own. None of us saw him owning the Weather Channel someday. Anybody who tells you that is a liar. But early on, he surrounded himself with a tremendous amount of the right kind of business people and it paid off.”