Fox Broadcast Network, The WB Architect Was 77

By Chanak Maduranga

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Fox Broadcast Network, The WB Architect Was 77
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Jamie Kellner, the charismatic and crafty executive who expanded the broadcast television landscape by helping hatch the Fox and WB networks in 1987 and 1995, respectively, had died. He was 77.

Kellner died Friday at his Montecito, California, home after a battle with cancer, The Hollywood Reporter has learned.

While still riding high atop The WB, Kellner in March 2001 was given additional responsibilities overseeing TBS, TNT and CNN as chairman and CEO of Time Warner sister company Turner Broadcasting System. But he was at that for just two years, before he retired and served out the remainder of his contract back in Burbank.

Meanwhile, Kellner was chairman of the station ownership group ACME Communications — named after the company in the Road Runner cartoons at Warner Bros. — from its launch in 1997 until it was liquidated in 2016. He was the rare network TV exec who also had a hand in the station business; ACME’s first nine stations, in fact, were WB affiliates.

The boyish Kellner was president of Orion Entertainment Group when he was among the first people hired by Rupert Murdoch and Barry Diller in February 1986 to develop a network at Fox to compete with CBS, NBC and ABC.

As founding president and COO of Fox Broadcasting Co., he set about building the affiliate network, selling programming to advertisers and establishing relations with producers.

“One of the first tests we apply [with a show] is: Would one of the three networks do this? And quite often, if the answer is yes, then we disqualify it,” Kellner told The New York Times in March 1987. “There is no reason for us to exist if we are going to do what they have already done.”

Married … With Children kicked off the first official night of Fox primetime on Sunday, April 5, 1987, and The Simpsons, Beverly Hills, 90210, Melrose Place and In Living Color would arrive later. He also spearheaded the creation of the Fox Children’s Network.

Kellner resigned in January 1993 — Diller had quit 11 months earlier — and was given a berth on Fox Inc.’s board of directors. But having launched a fourth broadcast network, he joined Warner Bros. in November 1993 itching to start a fifth.

Kellner received an 11 percent stake in The WB, with Warner Bros. taking 64 percent and the Tribune Co. 25 percent. (The network was built around six independent stations owned by Tribune, including WPIX in New York and KTLA in Los Angeles.)

After beating the bushes in a fierce battle for affiliates with rivals from fellow network upstart UPN, Kellner celebrated the kickoff of The WB when The Wayans Bros. aired on Jan. 11, 1995, five days before UPN got going.

The family-friendly drama 7th Heaven was The WB’s first big hit, followed by such other popular shows as Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Gilmore Girls, Dawson’s Creek, Felicity and Charmed.

“He had a Mr. Spock-like detached quality at times,” onetime WB exec Suzanne Daniels wrote of Kellner in her 2007 book Season Finale, co-authored with Variety‘s Cynthia Littleton. “He wasn’t easily excitable, yet he demonstrated such obvious passion and dedication that he inspired a team of young executives, none more so than I.”

One of five kids, James Kellner was born in Brooklyn in 1948 and raised on Long Island. His father, also James, was a Wall Street commodities broker; his mother, Jean, was a volunteer with the North Shore Hospital Auxiliary for more than three decades. He was an avid sailor who competed in yacht races as a youngster.

Kellner graduated with a degree in marketing from Long Island University’s C.W. Post campus, then got into the CBS executive training program in 1969 with help from his dad.

Mentored by Hank Gillespie, he landed a job in the network’s program sales division and went with that unit when it was spun off as Viacom Enterprises, rising to become vp first-run programming, development and sales.

In 1978, Kellner jumped to producer-distributor Filmways, where he had the idea to boil down the 90-minute Saturday Night Live episodes into a half-hour format ideal for syndication. After Orion Pictures acquired Filmways in 1982, he oversaw programming, home video, pay TV and syndication there and presided over the launch of Cagney & Lacey and a reboot of Hollywood Squares.

At Fox, it was his innovative idea to counterprogram a live episode of In Living Color opposite the halftime show of the 1992 Super Bowl, airing on CBS. Those halftime shows used to be boring, but that would quickly change: Michael Jackson performed in ’93.

As the No. 2 exec at Fox Broadcasting behind Diller, he had been given one percent stake in the network. When he left after seven years, he received a payout of $10 million-$15 million, a “sliver of what [he] hoped to gain from his involvement with The WB,” according to Season Finale.

At his next stop, Kellner reteamed with Garth Ancier — he had hired him as entertainment president at Fox — and they programmed a night of “urban” sitcoms, including The Wayans Bros., The Steve Harvey Show and The Jamie Foxx Show. The new network would target a younger audience, one that the maturing Fox had abandoned.

“Jamie Kellner was the perfect model of a CEO. Smart always, pugnacious sometimes, always thinking and often smiling, Jamie gave the executives lucky enough to work for him lots of runway. He would end conversations with, ‘Do we know what we’re doing?’ When things didn’t work out as planned (and they sometimes didn’t) there was no angst, just a ‘next time we will do it differently,’” John D. Maatta, former EVP and COO of The WB Television Network, wrote in a statement. “The atmosphere that Jamie Kellner and Garth Ancier created at The WB was a once-in-a-career moment for which I will always be grateful.”

After a public and protracted bidding war, Kellner allowed 20th Century Fox Television’s supernatural drama Buffy the Vampire Slayer, created by Josh Whedon and starring Sarah Michelle Gellar, to go to UPN after its fifth season (and its WB contract) ended in May 2001.

The WB had been paying $1 million an episode in licensing fees. UPN wound up forking over $2.3 million an episode for 44 episodes over the show’s final two seasons.

Kellner had a 5.3 percent stake in ACME when he founded it with Tom Allen, former CFO of Fox Broadcasting, and station exec Doug Gealy. The company acquired underperforming stations in such markets as St. Louis; Salt Lake City; Albuquerque; Portland, Oregon; Green Bay, Wisconsin; Dayton, Ohio; and Knoxville, Tennessee. One report called the relationship between ACME and The WB “vaguely incestuous.”

ACME had nine stations when it raised about $105 million with an IPO in September 1999. It grew to 12 stations before beginning the process of exiting the business in 2003.

Kellner did not endear himself to pro wrestling fans when he canceled World Championship Wrestling shows on TBS and TNT in one of his first programming decisions at Turner. He also tried and failed to bring buzz to CNN in its battle with the upstart Fox News Channel and pushed to merge the network with ABC News.

After he was replaced by Phil Kent, Kellner remained with The WB through the end of his contract in June 2004, when Ancier — who had exited The WB for a top NBC post before coming back — Jordan Levin and Jed Petrick took over. It would be his last big job.

“It seems like only yesterday when the partnership between Warner Bros. and Jamie began, as he and Bruce [Rosenblum] traversed the country in all sizes of planes and all types of weather signing up affiliates,” Warner Bros. Entertainment chairman and CEO Barry Meyer said then. “Jamie and his team have executed on the vision beyond the expectations of all those naysayers that loudly proclaimed that there was no room for more than four broadcast networks. Boy, were they wrong.”

Kellner saw The WB vanish in September 2006 when Warner Bros. and CBS Corp. replaced it and UPN with one network, The CW.

Survivors include his second wife, former entertainment banker Julie Smith; his daughter, Melissa Kellner Berman, who worked with TV producer Greg Berlanti as a development exec; son Christopher; and siblings Thomas, Ronald and Nancy. His sister Karen died in 2005 at age 44.

“I don’t think there’s another person in the history of TV that can say they helped start two new major broadcast networks (Fox and The WB),” Berlanti wrote in a tribute. “Jamie Kellner was a titan and a visionary in our industry and yet he will be remembered by anyone lucky enough to work for him as an executive or as a showrunner as a warm, funny, charismatic, creative and kind mentor, friend, husband and Dad.”

He continued, “He dedicated his life in TV to fostering and betting on generations of talent both in front of and behind the camera. I know I speak for so many others when I say my life was changed by the Camelot-esque home he created for all of us who worked at The WB. He will be greatly missed.”  

Chanak Maduranga

passionate journalist behind 'USA News Now 24', dedicated to delivering timely and accurate updates on US affairs. Committed to journalistic integrity and informing audiences with credible news coverage.

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