Bravo’s Queer Eye for the Straight Guy and AMC’s Breaking Bad may not seem to have much in common. The same could be said for AMC’s The Walking Dead and IFC’s Portlandia.
Yet there is a common link between those four shows — or rather, there are two. There’s one man who helped make each of those programs a reality and that man, Josh Sapan, will do his very best to shift the accolades to others.
An interview with Sapan, president and CEO of AMC Networks, is a case study in praise deflection, as he consistently points to one or another of his executives or producers as the true reason for the latest success.
“I’m proud I had the wisdom to listen to the people I work with,” Sapan said. That’s the closest he’ll come to bragging about a 30-year career at such media companies as Showtime, AMC and Bravo.
Give credit where credit is due. Sapan is faring very well at his day job, earning the nod as 2013’s Multichannel News Executive of the Year.
“He has an incredibly creative and versatile mind,” Ed Carroll, chief operating officer of AMC Networks and a longtime Sapan colleague, said. “He is truly collaborative — he welcomes new thoughts and dissenting ideas — and he tirelessly considers every possible approach. But he’s always three steps ahead.”
Sapan helmed the spinoff of AMC Networks, formerly known as Rainbow Media Holdings, from its longtime corporate home of Cablevision Systems in 2011. It “worked reasonably well,” Sapan acknowleged.
In fact, AMC’s stock last week was trading at around $62, up 24% from about $50 at the end of 2012.
Sapan oversees AMC, IFC, Sundance Channel, WE tv and IFC Films/Sundance Selects. He has worked tirelessly at pushing the boundaries of each network, and some of the shows he has commissioned, such as AMC’s Mad Men, have reshaped the television landscape.
“He never takes credit, but don’t believe him,” Discovery Communications CEO David Zaslav said. Zaslav worked closely with Sapan when he was at NBC and that company partnered with Cablevision and Rainbow Media on AMC, IFC and Bravo.
“Josh is a true creative and a great marketer,” Zaslav said. “He’s a dual threat.”
When Rainbow and NBC eventually split up those assets — with NBC taking Bravo in exchange for General Electric stock and cash — Zaslav said Sapan advised him to push forward with a quirky style-makeover show he’d been nurturing through development, one whose edgy name would subsequently worry some NBC executives.
That show, Queer Eye for the Straight Guy, was an instant hit for Bravo in 2003. Its stars, the “Fab Five,” became a cultural phenomenon.
Zaslav, acknowledging a bias because of his long friendship with Sapan, added that Sapan’s sharp mind and soft ego have created a magical combination. “Everyone one who works with him loves him and everyone who competes with him roots for him,” Zaslav said. “If anybody else had this kind of success we’d all be banging our heads against the wall, but because it’s him we’re happy.”
Carroll agreed. “He creates an environment where people can flourish and do great work,” he said.
Sapan’s roots in television run exceedingly deep. He grew up in Brooklyn, then Queens, then Long Island. After childhood dreams of being a baseball player and some time as an actor in school in his teens (his mother had done acting), he studied communications at the University of Wisconsin.
After graduating, Sapan, now 62, briefly ran his own mobile movie theater, traveling around with a projector and movies he thought would appeal to college-aged viewers.
After failing to land a job in broadcast television — which was still the be all and end all in the early 1970s — he took a job with a company that distributed medical television shows for doctors who needed their Continuing Medical Education credits. In those primitive times, the company distributed the programming via cassette tapes, but Sapan persuaded some early cable operators to distribute the programs on available space in their lineups. (The predecessor to Lifetime would later successfully establish this practice.)
Sapan also got to produce a documentary about health-care delivery in prisons, which he called “an eye-opening experience.”
His next move took him in a slightly different direction. He accepted a job offer at Tele-PrompTer Manhattan Cable TV, a predecessor to Time Warner Cable, which had 55,000 subscribers and was based at 215th Street and Broadway.
WORKED WITH LEGENDS
Discovering that he preferred being on the content side of the business, he soon jumped to Showtime, which became an ideal learning environment.
“There were all these great people working there,” Sapan said, such as John Sie (future founder of Starz), Peter Chernin (future News Corp. president) and Neil Austrian (future president of the National Football League and CEO of Showtime). “They were leaders and big thinkers. I observed them and learned that you had to take risks.”
Developing a penchant to take risks paid off in 1987, when he joined Cablevision as president of what was then Rainbow Media’s National Entertainment Division, overseeing AMC and Bravo.
Cablevision chairman Charles Dolan had made the MSO a place “that was breaking the rules all the time and had so many firsts: first regional sports channel, first suburban cable system, first regional news channel,” Sapan recalled.
Sapan used his marketing skill to hone each network’s niche — Bravo as a respected arts channel, home of Inside the Actors Studio and Queer Eye, and AMC as a network that elevated “those old movies on local television late at night into something revered.”
“I did have the sense that brand really mattered,” Sapan said. He said he also always believed in original programming, which he later used to take each of those networks, and subsequently IFC and Sundance, beyond their brand in ways that vastly widened their appeal.
The moves were a gamble because he also pushed the networks into the ad-supported arena at the same time.
“It felt like a big risk,” he said, adding that he often worried that he was creating the cabletelevision version of New Coke. “We were breaking the patterns, and it was heretical to the brands.”
While Sapan didn’t know that Mad Men would be a breakout hit, he found the script “intriguing” and sensed a strength there.
While many executives may get snowed by a flashy pitch, Zaslav said, Sapan can rely on the relationships and on the fact that as “an avid reader” he can trust his personal reaction to the scripts.
Sapan doesn’t just focus on the programming side. He’s also an early adopter of technology and keeps an eye on new possibilities to expand AMC Networks’s reach. The company bought the European content provider Chellomedia this fall and Sapan ended this interview because he was heading south, toward a town hall in Buenos Aires, Argentina, as part of AMC’s push into Latin America.
One reason Sapan — who was written up this fall in The New York Times and The New Yorker for his eclectic art collections — is able to juggle his disparate responsibilities is that every day he takes time out of his day to meditate, whether he’s in his office or on a road trip. He’s done so for more than two decades.
“He’s either meditating or sleeping in his office; I can’t tell,” Carroll joked, saying he’s amazed at how Sapan can bring himself into a relaxed state in the passenger seat of their car when traveling. “Sometimes I think he’s faking so he doesn’t have to talk to me.”
“Let’s leave that a mystery,” Sapan responded with a laugh, before he turned serious and said that meditating is extremely helpful. “It helps clear my mind so I can focus on my tasks.”