July 19, 2017

The It's About TV! Interview: Stephen Rodgers of PROClassic TV

We haven't had a good interview lately, so I thought this time we might take a look behind the scenes of the classic television streaming business with Stephen Rodgers, CEO of the Peter Rodgers Organization (PRO), the company behind PROClassic TV, If you're a classic television fan, you may have heard of PROClassic TV, or you may even be signed up for it. If not - well, let's find out more about it, along with Steve's views on why classic television remains popular, why the studios have no incentive to release their classic library on DVD, why "what people want to watch" is not the real question, and more.

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It's About TV: Tell me a little about PRO Classic TV. How did the idea come to you? How many shows do you currently have in your catalog? Do you know how many subscribers you have?

Stephen Rodgers: PROClassic TV was done for multiple reasons. Primarily, it was to be an educational experience necessitated by the spawning demand for content that could be delivered online directly to the consumer, since we were witnessing a decline in DVD sales on a retail basis. Before PROClassic TV, our business dealt on an executive level only with other companies whose business plans were that of retail sales to the general public. Kind of like a consumer buying their car directly from Ford or GM, rather than going through a dealer. We also recognized the growing demand for content by hundreds of start-up on-line platforms, but were dissatisfied with the modest revenue sharing proposals offered by these platforms for our content.

Ray Walston and Bill Bixby of "My Favorite Martian"
As the number of DVD retail sales declined, we needed to examine a way to continue providing classic television shows to the consumer. We were never in a position to manufacture physical DVD or tape formats for retail (we usually licensed the rights to companies whose primary business was such) so we felt that we could feasibly digitize our library into an on-line platform, which could be delivered to the consumer electronically. This removed the traditional risks associated with physical retail sales, such as returns, sales taxes, and seeking retail distribution to brick and mortar locations.

Today, PROClassic TV platforms are available on streaming services like HULU, You Tube and set-top device systems like ROKU, and on PRO’s exclusive web base site, proclassictv.com. Combined, these exhibition platforms regularly draw an average of over 3 million views every 90 days. (Quarterly)

How does it differ from other streaming services and retro subchannels out there?

The key difference is that PROClassic TV is dedicated to the content that PRO represents on behalf of its producer owners. While other services offer content, their content is comingled among many other content providers, which creates a fragmentation of revenue and makes promoting specific content to a single content provider impossible. PROClassic TV also ensures the viewer every episode from every season and offers a commercial free environment for a cost, which is competitive with other platforms, but allows us to retain 100% of the revenues for distribution to our clients and owners of the content, without questionable or unverifiable expenses. The other difference from other retro channels is that PRO’s content is copywritten and this translates to content offered exclusively that consumers will not find on other classic retro platforms who use a high percentage of television content in the public domain. Examples of identical episodes on numerous retro platforms include The Lucy Show, and sporadic non-sequential episodes of Bonanza, Dragnet, Robin Hood and more.

Why this attraction that people have to classic television? We continually hear that we’re in another Golden Age, and yet there’s a group of TV viewers out there who keep gravitating back to the classics. In your opinion, what is it that the new age is missing? 

Classic television has earned its stripes. Many of the shows are household names, solidly branded as a result of decades of television exposure, cultivating fan bases numbered in the millions. Classic TV shows attracted ratings numbers that are impossible to achieve today. This is why so many theatrical remakes are based on classic TV shows that are universally recognized – there is already a substantial loyal following and so they require less effort and expanse to promote. The “new age” viewer, as you call it, is increasingly exposed to branding on a much smaller scale. Some of the brands recognized by younger viewers are a result of “flash in the pan” exposure, which is soon displaced because they do not endure the time necessary to really establish them. Something may be on fire for two or three seasons, but wean shortly after. These new age shows cannot achieve the same tenure from a three-year stint as some classic tv shows which have spanned three decades.

I write a lot about classic television, obviously, and I keep hearing two things: first, that younger people have absolutely no interest in black-and-white programming, and second that the demographic for classic television skews so old that it really isn’t a very valued group. What do you say to that?

I would say to ask contemporary B&W photographers like Mary Ellen Mark, whose B&W images still draw high numbers and continue to inspire young adults through the presence of her works in galleries worldwide, or motion pictures produced in B&W even though color was well available. Color was not necessary for box office results. Mel Brooks’ Young Frankenstein, for example, was produced in the 1970’s, yet both the picture and its producer are renowned and recognized. B&W also helps set a theme or period unique to its genre, something the viewer comes to expect.

Chuck Conners, "The Rifleman"
An example of this is Schindler’s List, a Spielberg film that mixed both B&W and color sequences to better express a point or authenticity to a particular time. It is also an element of authenticity for shows like Westerns or period pieces. Our series, The Rifleman, has no problem earning hundreds of thousands of viewers on-line every month, as well as national cable exposure via AMC - with ratings, I might add, that exceed other notable series of the time that were produced in color.

As far as skewing older viewers, I can only say that history usually repeats itself. If not, it certainly rhymes, and such is true with genres and styles of production. If classic TV were reliant on only older demographics, then one would expect B&W content would have faded away many years ago.

But it hasn’t, has it?

No! In fact, there are a number of shows that continue to draw new viewers by way of their simplicity and B&W values. Look at I Love Lucy, The Rifleman, or even late-night runs of Perry Mason, all shows that relied on brilliant writing and plot, as opposed to flashy effects or being shot in color.

So you think there’s more to these shows than just the recognition factor – that there’s a values system that viewers are looking for, or a way of storytelling that they don’t seem to find in contemporary television?

You're right, it's all about the storytelling. Sure, you can cram a production with a bunch of explosions and special effects, but without a basic story...what's it all about?

And it’s true that even after the move to color, you had numerous shows still being shot in B&W, and many times fans of those shows say they prefer the B&W ones to the later color seasons.

PRO represents the first western television series even shot in color, which aired on NBC in the late 50’s, The Cisco Kid, at a time when not even half of television households owned a color TV set. Did it make a difference-? The answer is - no. Many B&W TV series followed with equal or greater success, even when shooting in color was possible.

I also hear a lot from classic TV fans about their frustration at so many of their favorites being unavailable to them, for one reason or another. You might not be in a position to answer this, but in your opinion what can be done to get some distributors to be more “generous” with their catalog? Is there any way that PROClassic can become involved in, say, the WB or Fox inventory?

(Laughing!)  Studios don’t want old shows available to consumers; they have already made their money back on these productions. Studios deliberately “shelve” older content, because they want revenues earned on the newer productions they remain in the red for. This is especially true with broadcast and cable platforms. Studios are in constant production, but there are only 24 hours in a day and selling an older series in any particular timeslot means a new production won’t air there. From a studio standpoint, why promote and offer an old show (regardless of popularity) that has already recouped its costs, when a new show awaiting recoupment needs to afford a return on the studios investment?

Roger Moore - the one and only "Saint"
I have personally witnessed dozens of instances when a producer/owner we represent has reached the end of its contract with us, lured away by a studio, offering a considerable upfront advance, only to see their beloved series languish on the shelf, because its the mentality of these studios to pay a few hundred thousand dollars to keep something off the air, to afford the millions it needs to break even or realize profit on their latest work. Studios are not interested in entertaining or brand preservation, they only live to produce more content and profit from the new works created. Studios may be the source of remakes of branded content, but they are the leading killer of the classic shows from which they originate. Studios don’t want companies like PRO to approach them, or even exist, because we take away audience they need to satisfy their financial goals on their current works.

In other words, if you’re fed up with Warners not putting out one of their catalog shows and you complain to them, their answer is likely to be something like “tough luck.”

And that's assuming you can even get to anyone at Warner Bros.

Based on the feedback you’ve gotten so far, what kinds of shows do people want to see? And are there any types (genre, age, star) that you’ve been surprised by, either that the response was better than you expected, or not as good?

How long is a line, and how high is up?

What people want to watch is not the question. The question is this: what is currently available to see? Look at the basic cable networks today, which started as specific genre channels during their growth in the 1990s. A&E, supposedly Arts and Entertainment, has content that has nothing to do with either anymore. AMC, American Movie Classics, now runs movies less than 10 years old, as well as original series. Discovery Channel now only discovers what’s at the bottom of some swamp, and TV Land abandoned classic TV altogether and produces first-run content. None of these networks shows the content for which they were originally created, because the viewing habits of consumers changes with the availability of content to watch. This is why on-line viewing has been dramatically reducing standard TV and Cable numbers. In response, these channels, once dedicated to over-the-air or cable-delivered, are now expanding to online platforms, trying to keep their viewership respectable.

Overall, it comes down to the death of scheduled programing. Viewers no longer have to wait for a specific day and time to see their favorite shows on a scheduled basis. They want to see what they want, when they want to. This was what DVRs tried to harness, but have been losing grip to as a result of on-line and on demand platforms.

What is the process you go through to obtain the rights to add a series to your catalog?

We do not obtain or license anything. We are the exclusive representatives for the actual producers, owners or in many cases, the estates and families of their producing family member. After 43 years of business, we are approached by these individuals and entities, seeking a way to monetize the asset left them by their parent or experienced the reversion of long term rights on content, tied up since its original production and network release. We also represent companies with film libraries, which do not have the tenure of domestic distribution as PRO does. There are also those that are too focused on new productions and the financing of such, to extend the efforts required to license classic content in their libraries.

What kinds of things do you look for when you’re considering adding a series? Things like the quality of transfers, number of episodes, availability in other media?

I focus on brands - plain and simple. We know we are not going to acquire “The Second Coming of Christ” with the original cast, but we know we don’t have the leverage to push “Who Shot Paul in the Ass in Patty’s Room” either. Obviously, the more episodes the better, as any series with less than 75 episodes won’t satisfy a Monday – Friday schedule and that’s where the lion’s share of acquisition budgets are. There is little support to spend resources on a show that is relegated to weekends only by virtue of not enough episodes to air beyond that.

Are there any programs (that you’re at liberty to discuss) that are on your radar for the future? Any shows that you’ve really wanted to add but were unable to make work? 

Yes to both. I know studio vaults house dozens of series that I know I could successfully sell, but never will because of the reasons I stated above. There have been a couple of series we aggressively pursued, only to see them swooped up and shelved by the very same studios. This recently happened to The Honeymooners and the Zorro series we represented - it was not renewed because of a studio upfront that never allowed it to see the light of day or a penny afterwards.

It’s just business and one which places more interest in the bottom line than in entertaining the public or fulfilling their content demands. This is another aspect of the threat that on-line exhibitors present.

Celebrities strike out!
What’s the definition of success for PROClassic TV? How large do you want to get in terms of your catalog, and how many subscribers are you shooting for?

Our definition of success is providing content which has established milestones in television history and that viewers want to see, which result in a respectable revenue stream for those who worked hard to produce them and their heirs, effectively preserving the brand these time-honored productions so richly deserve.

Do you have your own personal favorite of the shows you currently have in your catalog?

Actually, I don’t think I’ve seen more than 10 episodes of any of the TV series we represent! I do, however, hold these classics in the highest regard and recognize each of them for the qualities they possess and the fact that they were made at a time where entertainment was the primary motivation for their creation and the money they earned, was merely the icing on the cake, over and above the enjoyment they brought to millions of viewers, each and every week. For fulfilling the drams, not necessarily the pockets, of those creative individuals for which Hollywood was made.

If you were to remake one series from the past, what would it be and why?

I make deals, not productions, so it’s difficult for me to answer this question. My personal favorites do not necessarily reflect the preferences of others. You question would depend on the desire to remake for creativity, popularity or for monetary reward. Generally, I appreciate the wholesome, simple yet sometimes-dangerous plots surrounding westerns. Many of these concepts hold true today, whether it be a single father trying to single-handedly raise a young boy in the old west or a pair of truckers or cowboys riding from place to place, helping those who need help along the way, Classic TV series rely more on values and story than current productions, giving them an admirable quality. To remake these today would demand the inclusion of special effects or shock value elements that would result in something very different than what their preceding origins would have liked or intended.

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My thanks again to Stephen Rodgers for his time, and to Tim Williams for facilitating our interview. You can find out more about PROClassic TV at their website, or by checking out their YouTube channel.

4 comments:

  1. Wonderful interview, and very insightful. I watch PRO Classic on Roku and enjoy many of the shows. I'm glad it's available. Thanks again.

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  2. Ask Stephen Rodgers why PRO altered the end credits of THE RIFLEMAN (as shown on Me TV) and removed the Four Star tag? (Current BIG VALLEY syndicator 20th Century Fox didn't mess with it.)

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    1. Why did the Peter Rodgers Organization scrap the Four Star logo and fanfare in favor of its own?

      Nothing new about that.

      In 1956, RKO Radio Pictures licensed its entire film library - 742 feature films, dating back to the early '30s - to a Texas-based company called the C&C Super Corporation, for use by local TV stations.
      C&C called their TV package Movietime USA.
      One of C&C's first big sales was to the ABC owned-and-operated stations, giving them broadcasting rights in perpetuity; here in Chicago, Channel 7 was showing the old pictures in off-hours well into the Millenium.

      The catch: C&C scrubbed the famous RKO "beeping tower" logo from all 742 movies, replacing it with Movietime USA and the C&C logo.
      I first saw many of these movies on Channel 7 from age six; I never even heard of RKO Radio pictures until years later.
      Even now, long after the Turner Organization got back the rights and restored the RKO pictures, once in a while the C&C logo slips through on the more obscure titles.

      In the '60s, when the color prints of The Cisco Kid were finally released (the original syndication was in B&W), the buyer was a Chicago distributor named Walter Schwimmer.
      What he did was to wipe out the famous ZIV logo from all Cisco prints, replacing it with his name.
      (Has PRO restored the ZIV screen, or do they now take credit for Cisco?)

      The more things change, the more they stay the same.

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  3. Interesting interview and a fascinating business model. Now, if the folks that own the rights to the rest of THE DEFENDERS episodes would just get with PRO TV.

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Thanks for writing! Drive safely!