The executive led ABC into the top ranks of the broadcast networks, then masterminded the company’s expansion into cable and international arenas, with ESPN, A&E, The History Channel, Lifetime Television and Disney/ABC International. This profile is the fifth in a series featuring individuals who will be honored by the Library of American Broadcasting Foundation as Giants of Broadcasting & Electronic Arts on Oct. 15 in New York. This year’s other honorees: Don Mischer, Gracia Martore, Bill Persky, Jarl Mohn, Gene Jankowski, Mel Karmazin, the Carter family and Don West.
Herb Granath is perhaps best known for his long and distinguished career at ABC, where he was a pioneer in many aspects of the television business.
He is credited with leading ABC into the cable and international arenas, and he helped position the company as the industry leader in these fields. During this time he developed and served as chairman of the boards of ESPN, A&E, The History Channel and Lifetime Television. He also was chairman of Disney/ABC International, where he was responsible for the international program production and distribution activities of The Walt Disney Co. and its wholly owned subsidiary, ABC Inc.
Had it not been for a piece of paper pinned to a college bulletin board, however, none of this would have happened. “I had prepared for a technical career, but I also had this idea of somehow being involved with show business,” Granath recalls of his early days as a physics major at Fordham University. “I’d done some stand-up comedy and school plays, I had taken some dance lessons, and I sang with a band for a while and did some night club work.” One day he spotted a notice posted on a bulletin board for a part-time job on the NBC page staff, and in short order he was working on such shows as the Milton Berle Texaco Star Theater and Broadway Open House, which was the forerunner to The Tonight Show.
After a stint in the Army Reserve, Granath returned to Fordham and earned his master’s degree in communication arts. He then parlayed what he calls his “vast show biz experience” into a sales job at NBC, where he likely would have remained had he not been told about an opportunity at ABC, which at the time was still struggling for ratings and revenue. “ABC was the last of the three networks to be organized,” he explains in a Fordham oral history project. “They had poor affiliates, they had poor programming and they did not have the roster of stars that CBS and NBC had, largely as a hold-over from the radio days.”
These challenges inspired rather than discouraged the young Granath, so he made the leap. It was a move that not only altered the path of his career, but also the course of network programming for years to come. Beginning on the radio side of the company, he eventually moved into television, which had formed a specialty unit for selling advertising time for Monday Night Football and the Olympics.
“I traveled with Monday Night Football for the first several years, and it was one of the most interesting elements of my early career,” he says. “It actually changed the way most Americans spent their Monday nights. Everywhere we went it was a ‘happening,’ and when we got off the plane it was a ‘happening.’ It demonstrates the power of television.”
After several years at ABC, Granath made a brief detour to work at Mark McCormick’s sports agency, where he served as head of television production. The following year, however, ABC President Elton Rule lured him back to serve as his assistant, a position that also had him work directly with founder Leonard Goldenson.
One of the ongoing challenges ABC faced at the time was the lack of financial resources needed to create and produce quality programming to rival what NBC and CBS were doing. “ABC was an almost-ran or ‘never-was’ company,” Granath says. “Leonard started out behind the 8-ball and by dint of sheer hard work and personality he brought ABC into parity with the other networks.”
That parity also occurred with considerable assistance from the Hearst-owned television stations, which were the foundation upon which ABC was built. “They had some very powerful stations affiliated with ABC, and Leonard was very close to the Hearst people, particularly Chairman Frank Bennack. I was putting together the entry of ABC into the nascent cable business, and Leonard suggested I involve Hearst, which was interested in getting into the television production business.”
Granath approached Hearst President and Group Head Ray Joslin, who was enthusiastic about the prospect of partnering with ABC. “Having Hearst involved was very important because it took the sting out of how much money we were investing, or what the board of directors called ‘losing,’ ” Granath says. “There was no return at that point; it was all futures. A couple of people on the board became strong allies believing my story that the money we were spending at the time was an investment in ABC’s future and would pay off in dividends at some point.”
With Hearst’s influence and capital behind it, ABC was able to develop the programming that would make it the No. 1 network in America. The partnership also propelled ABC into the nascent cable business, beginning with what became known as the ARTS network — the forerunner to A&E. “A was for Alpha (because it was our first) Repertory Television Service. Then we did Daytime, which was the forerunner of what is now Lifetime,” Granath explains. “And, because of the connection ABC had with sports, it was just a natural that we would get into sports.”
Granath planned to form a new cable sports network from scratch, but then he heard about a venture based in Bristol, Conn., called ESPN, which was backed by the Getty Oil Co. “In those days ESPN was doing wrist-wrestling and barrel jumping, so I got their attention by talking about putting the Wild World of Sports on their network,” he says.
ABC acquired an interest in ESPN, and Granath also negotiated an option that gave ABC the ability to acquire the rest of the company if Getty ever wanted out of it. The oil company eventually was bought by Texaco, which ABC approached to exercise those options, giving the network full ownership.
When Cap Cities acquired ABC in 1985, Granath had initial concerns that the new bottom line-oriented management team might shut down the cable networks. But the new parent company, which had owned cable systems that it had to divest as a precondition of the ABC acquisition, decided to keep the ABC ventures running. “We were losing less money, and I was fortunate that the year they took over ESPN it went from a considerable loss to a very tidy profit,” Granath says.
By the late 1980s ABC’s cable ventures had turned profitable, and Granath determined that the development of a satellite delivery system around the world could be extremely profitable. “Moving into countries like Germany, Spain and France, our first concern was to look for good, strong, local partners who would guide us through the minefields of the mores of their countries,” he explains. “We looked for those who wanted to produce quality TV programs, [and] we bought into a lot of local production companies in Europe.”
While political pundits offer many varied explanations for the fall of the Soviet Union and the dismantling of the “Communist East,” Granath believes that the advent of satellite-distributed programming played a definite role in the eventual collapse. “As long as government could control what people were seeing and hearing, life was good for the people who were running those kinds of governments,” he explains in the Fordham video. “With satellites, the barriers were down in terms of the boundaries of countries. The footprint [of information] was wherever you could pick up a signal.”
Following the acquisition of ABC by Disney in 1995, Granath was named chairman of Disney/ABC International, where he was responsible for the company’s international program production and distribution activities. He subsequently served as co-chairman of Crown Media Holdings, was vice chairman of Central European Media, (CME) and acted as senior content adviser to Telenet, Belgium’s leading cable company.
Active in many areas within and outside broadcasting, he is past president of the International Emmys, and a former chairman of the National Academy of Television Arts and Sciences. He also has been a director of the IRTS Foundation, a member of the TransAtlantic Dialogue on European Communications, and the League of New York Theater Owners and Producers.
He has received two Tony awards, six Tony nominations, an International Emmy Award for Lifetime Achievement in International TV, and a U.S. Emmy for Lifetime Achievement in Sports Television. In 2008 he was inducted into the Broadcasting & Cable Hall of Fame, and was honored by the IRTS Foundation for his lifetime of achievement in — and contributions to — the television and cable industries.
Reflecting on a career so rich in experiences and accomplishments, Granath says one of the reasons he enjoyed physics so much was “looking into the essence of things.” Noting that a course in logic was one of the most influential he ever took while attending Fordham University, he adds, “It is amazing to me in American business how little a role logic plays. It has been a hallmark of the way I approach business.”
The Library of American Broadcasting will honor this year’s Giants of Broadcasting & Electronic Arts at a luncheon at New York’s Gotham Hall on Oct. 15. For tickets, congratulatory ads and other information, please contact Joyce Tudyrn at [email protected]. The luncheon is presented by the International Radio and Television Society Foundation. TVNewsCheck is publishing these profiles as an in-kind contribution to the library. You may read other profiles in the series by clicking here.