Asked if he ever thought Inside the Actors Studio, James Lipton’s landmark interview show for Bravo, would be a hit, CABLEready founder and CEO Gary Lico’s answer is an unabashed “yes.”
While the veteran distribution and TV exec has earned a reputation as one of the most open, outspoken and outgoing salesmen in the television business, he’s nonetheless struggled to overcome one thing.
“I’m very loud and gregarious,” he says, “but I have a tough time taking credit for stuff.”
AHEAD OF THE CURVE
Based in Norwalk, Connecticut, the proudly independent CABLEready has been distributing and developing original programming to cable networks for two decades, and has since branched into Cable U, a research/trend analysis service offered to subscribers; and established the production/duplication company CABLEready Productions.
Lico began his career as an on-air talk show host in Milwaukee but switched to syndication sales at SFM Entertainment and later became VP of programming at Katz Communications. He wound up at Columbia Pictures Television where he noticed that the growing number of cable networks was having trouble finding programming. So, he decided to start his own venture and founded CABLEready in 1992.
The deal that launched the company – the sale of Hearst’s Capelli & Company to Nickelodeon – would also set the stage for the way Lico would grow CABLEready in the years ahead. When he approached the programming exec for the network at the time, she said she’d already passed on it.
“But she said, ‘You know what, Gary? We’ve seen this show before. Someone from the station and someone else brought it in and we didn’t think it was for us,’” he recalls. “But right now we need a show and you’ve told me more about this show than anyone else did.’”
From his time spent in programming, he knew exactly what network execs wanted: research on the buyer, research on the product and friendly service. He decided to focus on developing non-fiction entertainment – beginning with home improvement and cooking shows – produced by independent prodcos outside the major production centers but with a level of quality in line with what major networks would air.
“When you get a project from CABLEready it comes with an understanding that it’s going to be well-researched, well-produced and oftentimes may be a little bit ahead of the curve,” says Henry Schleiff, president and general manager of Investigation Discovery, Military Channel and Planet Green.
One of CABLEready’s most successful shows is Medical Detectives, a “whodunit”-style investigation series produced by Pennsylvania-based Medstar Television, one of the distributor’s first clients. Lico urged EP Paul Dowling to do something about how forensic science is used to investigate crimes, accidents and medical mysteries. The show began airing on TLC in 1996 before rebranding as Forensic Files and moving to Court TV (later truTV), later airing on NBC.
As luck would have it, the show hit just as the O.J. Simpson murder trial became a ratings boon for news networks. When it moved to Court TV, Medstar went into year-round production on the show and has since produced 400 episodes. Lifetime recently secured rights to 100 episodes in the catalog, which it will air as Medical Detectives.
“It literally became everything we did because there was no time to do anything else,” says Dowling. “The network wanted more shows quicker than we could produce. Gary handled the international sales as well and that was jumping off the charts.”
Schleiff, previously chairman and CEO of Court TV when it bought Forensic Files, saw in the show a completely new take on science.
“They did science in a way that showed how brilliant the people working in that field are,” he says. “It was about puzzle-solving.”
As for the aforementioned Inside the Actors Studio, Bravo Media president Frances Berwick says it’s a testament to Lico and his team that “a talk show, which is probably one of the hardest formats to sell internationally, has sold so well and continues to sell.
“He’s persistent and personable,” she says of Lico. “He understands the market and he understands the content that he’s distributing, and he doesn’t waste people’s time.”
EXPANDING THE VISION
Five years ago, CABLEready expanded the role of the third-party distributor, launching the research subscription service Cable U, which grew out of the company’s practice of sending producers quarterly research reports. The company has also grown through opening the production plant CABLEready Productions – the brainchild of SVP of operations Lou Occhicone and VP of operations Eric Benitez – and is getting more involved in front-end development of its series.
Last year the company set its sights on content produced in Canada and partnered with distribution consultant and former UniPix CEO David Fox to source original Canadian programming, both library and properties in advanced development, for international distribution. Increasingly, Canadian producers are churning out quality programs with international market appeal, and CABLEready saw in Canada an untapped market in which to develop and license original programming to sell in the U.S.
“We believe we can get to the point where we’re working with eight or 10 of the best Canadian production companies,” says Fox.
“Five years ago we never thought about leading a parade into Canada to represent under-represented producers, and that’s turned out to be one of our biggest growth areas in the last year and a half,” adds Lico.
One of the first production companies brought on board through the venture was Toronto’s Buck Productions. CABLEready has recently sold two of its series, Saw Dogs and Deals from the Dark Side; Saw Dogs to Velocity and Deals to an undisclosed U.S. network.
“They sit down and really look at the concepts I send them, ask the right questions and push you to get the right stuff,” says Buck’s head of TV Jim Kiriakakis. “I trusted in their abilities and they trusted in mine.”
Key to the development process is research, which Lico and his team encourages their clients to read as if they were programmers.
“When they develop shows with producers they represent, they’re constantly trying to move them to think more like programmers,” says Dale Bosch, who headed Bosch Media, the company behind History’s Monster Quest, before retiring in 2011. “That’s where Gary shines with independent production companies: he’s constantly educating them.”
The future is a more hands-on approach to development, which Lico says is now occupying most of his staff’s time – regardless of the platform that it ends up on.
“Almost 20 years ago I was at a cable convention and a bus drove by with an advertisement on the side that said, ‘In the future there will not be 500 channels, there will be one: yours,’” says Lico. “That obviously has stuck with me all these years, which is why the race is always on to develop the programs that can cut across all of those platforms. People don’t watch delivery systems, they watch programs.”
Philanthropy and mentoring are also areas of keen interest for CABLEready. Lico has held a position as an adjunct professor at Newhouse University in Syracuse and remains on its board. During CABLEready’s 10th anniversary, the company created a 10-year scholarship program at the university, and also donated an audio lab to Central Michigan University.
Over the next five years, CABLEready will continue to expand its presence beyond the U.S., through the Canadian partnership with Fox but also into Europe (it already represents ISO Media in Finland and D4D Media in Spain). It also aims to expand the genres it specializes in and possibly open new offices in either London or Los Angeles.
“We’re very focused on building an infrastructure that can promote and withstand growth so regardless of the volume of business we’ve been able to handle it,” says Occhicone.
The goals are designed to strengthen the company’s position in the industry, but not at the cost of CABLEready’s service mandate.
Christian Drobnyk, SVP of scheduling and acquisitions at Lifetime, calls CABLEready “one of the last truly independent distributors,” adding for good measure, “You know you’re going to have a direct relationship with Gary Lico and his key people.”
Finally, Lico is allowing himself to take pride in that reputation. During this past fall’s MIPCOM, he had a chat with Disney/ABC Television Group president Anne Sweeney – the recipient of MIP’s annual Personality of the Year Award and the former Nickelodeon programming exec that greenlit the deal that put CABLEready in business. He told her, “If not for you, we wouldn’t be where we are.”
“She said, ‘Well, I hope you’re proud of where you’ve taken it from there,’ because she knew I wasn’t feeling it,” he recalls. “This time I’m allowing myself to feel it. We’ve done enormous things without financial backing, without a safety net and, hopefully, without rancor but with respect.”
See a timeline of CABLEready‘s last 20 years here.