KING WORLD EYES COMEDY BLOCK AS BOLD NEW BIZ: `HOLLYWOOD SQUARES' GAVE THE BROTHERS A TASTE OF GENRE'S POTENTIAL

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Buoyed by the initial success of the revitalized "Hollywood Squares," King World Productions is looking to move more aggressively into TV comedy.

Brothers Roger and Michael King, chairman and vice chairman-CEO, respectively, say they want to bring out a new kind of comedy program for first-run syndication in 2000.

COMMITMENT TO EXPANSION

They haven't formulated a specific concept, but they want to develop a half-hour program that falls somewhere between a sitcom and a game show.

Along with the upcoming fall 1999 launch of "The Martin Short Show" and the development of a prime-time network drama called "Murder Inc.," the comedy idea shows that King World is committed to expanding on its recent plunge into TV production as it pursues revenue growth.

Along with "The Roseanne Show," the new "Hollywood Squares" is one of King World's first forays into co-production. Pleased with promising ratings and stations' support for the program, the Kings say their new show might even be somehow creatively connected to "Squares."

"It would be a creative `block of programming,' " Michael says. He added that a specific concept is in the early stages of development.

BORINGLY SUCCESSFUL

"The Martin Short Show" remains King World's top production priority for 1999. King World has been an enigma of sorts in the TV business: boringly successful. Loaded with cash earned through enormous licensing fees from syndication stalwarts like "The Oprah Winfrey Show" and "Wheel of Fortune," the company has at times frustrated analysts and investors with its slowness to invest in new projects or acquisitions.

At the same time, with a roster of celebrity talents ranging from Oprah to Roseanne to Vanna White, the company's ability to maintain long-term relationships and success with hit shows has been a bit of a marvel. Year after year, analysts and pundits have wondered how the company -- whose cash and investments exceed $800 million -- might branch out, and how it would cope if it lost one of its key properties.

LOCKED AND LOADED

And year after year, the big news at King World has been another extension of its contracts with its crown-jewel programs: "Oprah," "Wheel" and "Jeopardy!" With all of its key properties renewed through at least 2002, the company has close to $2 billion in future revenue it can count on. As Michael King says, "If we don't do another thing, I know we'd get a big check in August 2000, and another in August 2005.

True enough. But in today's stock market, a solid revenue base isn't enough. Growth is the fountain of riches, and analysts and investors have been pushing the company to invest toward that end. The Kings sound ready to please.

"It's really the last tax shelter left -- growth," Roger King says.

King World's stash of funds is large enough to buy a big company, but it hasn't even been able to find a small one.

Michael says King World has examined a number of potential acquisitions, but to date has not found a property it liked that wasn't overpriced. He declines to name names.

"We're looking under every rock, [around] every corner," Michael says. Part of the brothers' caution stems from their success. When you become accustomed to a portfolio of hits, you tend to become less and less interested in properties that might flop. With that in mind, the rollout last fall of two new shows built around tired brand names -- "Hollywood Squares" and Roseanne -- was a big step for the King brothers. With the help of heavy promotion, "Squares" has made an impact. Featuring Whoopi Goldberg and a lineup of other well-known comedy talents, "Squares" is off to a great start, according to Roger.

"We're beating `Seinfeld,' `Home Improvement' . . . it's a major demographic hit," Roger says.

Program managers at the local level say it's too early to call "Squares" a demographic success, but November ratings do initially look promising.

"In households, it ran a share point higher than the show it replaced," says Pat Patton, program manager at KMBC-TV in Kansas City, Mo.

PRIME PROMOTERS

KMBC, like many of the stations carrying the show, has been promoting it heavily.

"We know how to promote the product," Roger King says. "That's one thing we know how to do."

As of mid-December, Mr. Patton and other station managers hadn't received demographic data from the November sweeps.

"The Roseanne Show" got off to a slower start than "Squares" but hasn't tanked like some observers expected. The Kings say they're happy with the show so far, both for what it has achieved in the ratings and, more important, for opening up a new line of growth for King World.

According to Roger, King World's co-producer role on "Roseanne" helped spawn "The Martin Short Show." The brothers' enthusiasm for that show is growing exponentially. By mid-December, they had commitments to air the program from stations covering 60% of the U.S. as of mid-January. And Mr. Short has helped the cause with a well-received turn on Broadway in "Little Me."

CAUTION BREEDS SUCCESS

A huge growth opportunity would seem to exist in overseas markets. But the Kings say they will move cautiously in the international arena.

Currently, the company gets about 8% of its revenue from foreign operations, and neither brother will voice a specific target increase for 1999 and beyond.

Once again, it's the boring answer, and without an apology. For the Kings, caution breeds success.

"You have to pick your partners carefully," Michael says. "In this business,

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