For global media production and distribution company Entertainment Studios, the launch of “Funny You Should Ask,” hosted by Jon Kelley, marks the company’s first step into the high-profile game show genre. But the founder and CEO of the company is taking many “first steps” in several business lines these days, and he has no plans of stopping anytime soon.
Founded by Byron Allen nearly 25 years ago, Entertainment Studios has more original content than any other independent television production and distribution company in the business. The tally: 41 original first-run series at present count (including a monopoly in the syndicated court category). Then…deep breath…there are seven HD networks (including ES.TV, Justice Central.TV, Comedy.TV, Recipe.TV, Pets.TV, Cars.TV and MyDestination.TV); a film distribution company, Entertainment Studios Motion Pictures (who’s “47 Meters Down,” starring Mandy Moore scored big as the highest grossing indie film of the year with nearly $45 million box office ); a podcast network (featuring several original series recorded in-house); and a new focus on its over-the-top initiative, Sports.TV. Big wheels are rolling at the Century City-based company, and “Funny You Should Ask” is delivering the laughs around the country with some of the most iconic comedians working today.
“We just wanted to do a show that was simple and funny with no political overtones,” said Byron Allen of “Funny You Should Ask.” “We thought this was something that was not out there, a relatable format with likable people that viewers would want to see every day; people that I want to have in my home. And we felt the simplicity of the format was exactly what would resonate in today’s climate. Laugh and learn, and for every question there’s a funny answer. “
With a two-year commitment, a minimum of 130 original episodes in each of those first two years, and clearances at 95 percent of the country in year one (including commitments on stations owned by Sinclair, Scripps, Graham Media, Meredith, Mission, Sunbeam, Nexstar and Raycom, among others), “Funny You Should Ask” features comedy legends like Howie Mandel, Louie Anderson, Jon Lovitz and a rotation of approximately 40 different comedians who will appear on a recurring basis. In addition to first-run syndication “Funny You Should Ask” is also seen on the company’s Comedy.TV, their cable net that has many other comedy brands in its programming.
“Our commitment is to make it great; the best – and funniest – game show ever,” noted Allen. “The country is definitely experiencing some turbulence in the news and we want to make everyone laugh each day.”
Targeted to the 3 p.m. to 8 p.m. daypart, with a focus in the 7-8 p.m. prime access hour, Allen is particularly optimistic about the focus on comedy on the primary network affiliates. “Because of the fin-syn rules many years ago, which said that off-network sitcoms cannot go onto the primary network affiliates, those sitcoms migrated to the independent stations,” he said. “So, there is a huge void in comedy on the Big 3 – ABC, CBS and NBC. And if you ever put comedy on these primary network affiliates, I am confident you will see the caliber of ratings in those time periods that they have not seen in years.”
Officially known as the Financial Interest and Syndication Rules, the fin-syn rules were a set of restrictions imposed by the Federal Communications Commission in the United States in 1970 prohibiting networks from airing syndicated programming they had a financial stake in (and imposing other regular regulations like the non-comedy rule in the prime access hour).
“That legislation created a void that today is still glaring,” noted Allen. “And this show, ‘Funny You Should Ask,’ will capitalize on that absence.”
Byron Allen’s Early Origins
No stranger to comedy himself, Allen made his early mark performing stand-up at the age of 14 in Detroit and ultimately being discovered by Jimmie Walker, the then star of top-10 rated CBS sitcom “Good Times.” Allen segued into writing jokes for Walker and performing on “The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson” at the age of 18, the youngest comedian to achieve that coveted benchmark. And, also in 1979, he began his co-hosting stint on NBC’s “Real People,” which was a combination of reality and comedy focused on everyday people.
Allen’s entry into television production began in Los Angeles in 1993 when he founded Entertainment Studios with the launch of his first series – “Entertainers with Byron Allen,” a one-hour weekly series profiling the current stars of film and television. Now in season 25, “The Entertainers” is tied in longevity with “Oprah,” hosted by the “Queen of Talk,” Oprah Winfrey, from 1986 to 2011.
“I started the company from my dining room table in 1993, calling all 1,300 stations asking them to carry “Entertainers” for free on a barter basis with 14 minutes of commercial time (and I would keep seven minutes),” remembered Allen. “I would sell my seven minutes to national advertisers. When a promised deal with Tribune to sell my advertising time fell through, I moved forward with no money and no investors and, for about four years, things were really tight. But I turned a corner selling commercial time to the movie studios for “Entertainers,” and I went on the road and sat down with anyone and everyone pitching the show and offering them the opportunity to reach consumers at a cost they were comfortable with.”
“I went industry by industry, signing up soft drinks, automobile companies, packaged goods, pharmaceuticals,” he continued. “And, suddenly, I had a relationship with all the television stations for the most part and a lot of major advertisers. I put another show on the air, and another and another and another. Almost 25 years later we have 41 shows running, one of the largest privately owned television libraries in the world, close to 5,000 hours of programming, seven 24-hour HD networks, and a movie studio that distributes films directly to the theaters and has an output deal with Netflix and Lionsgate.”
Most recently, Allen and his ES Motion Picture group secured the sci-fi themed “Replicas” starring Keanu Reeves; and “Chappaquiddick,” detailing the story of Senator Ted Kennedy’s fatal car accident that nearly derailed his political career (the latter film at a cost of $20 million).
“We have absolutely positioned ourselves for both traditional media and new media,” noted Allen. “With all the premium .TVs that we own we are direct to everyone in the world. We own .TVs we have not even turned on – news.tv, kids.tv, sports.tv. Now we will be able to build those out and go direct to four billion connected devices.”
“We are also actively building out and building up our movie division,” he added. “We put out our first wide release last summer, “47 Meters Down,” and now we have the highest grossing independent movie of the year.”
Additional new movie titles from Entertainment Studios include “48 Meters Down,” a sequel to “47 Meters Down,” and action-thriller “The Hurricane Heist” from Rob Cohen (“The Fast and the Furious,” “XXX”).
“Our goal is 15 to 20 movies per year, with our sweet spot 2,000 to 4,000 screens,” said Allen. “We are also looking to build out our cable networks; we have seven at present and we are growing them daily. We are building our television shows and using these series to help television stations generate more money.”
Taking a break isn’t in Allen’s philosophy. He is constantly looking to the future and building his business. And with films, cable and syndication’s “Funny You Should Ask” in the marketplace, he will need to take a lesson from one of his upcoming movies: “Replicas”, and clone himself to be in many places at the same time!