We are here with entertainment industry trailblazer Larry Namer. Starting as a pioneer in the early days of cable television, he has always been at the forefront of the industry. Mr. Namer’s company Steeplechase Media founded in 1995 served as the primary consultant to Microsoft’s MiTV for developing interactive TV applications. He is also co-founder of E! Entertainment Television, a company now valued at over $3.5 billion. Over the years Mr. Namer has created several successful companies in the United States and overseas.
Q : Larry, You have made quite a name for yourself in the entertainment industry. Can you tell me a little about how you got started?
A: I hate to say it but it was quite by accident. People want a much more interesting and sexy story. I had just graduated college and was planning to teach. New York City had a budget crisis and put a freeze on hiring new teachers so I needed to figure out what I would do with my economics degree so I took what I thought would be a mindless temporary summer job to afford myself the thinking time. I got a job working for a company called Sterling Manhattan Cable TV as an assistant underground cable splicer. In other words, I worked in the sewers below Manhattan. I learned all the technical stuff simply by reading the instruction books for the equipment manufacturers so advanced pretty quickly on that end. Then Time Inc. bought the company and the Ivy Leaguers had a hard tome understanding what the technical folks were doing (many barely spoke English and many had not even finished high school. ) Someone in HR found that one of those folks (me) had an economics degree and they moved me into management where I again rose very quickly. It was a great time to be in the Time Inc. family because they made a very conscious decision to become a media company, not just a publishing company. So I got to do lots of things at a very young age. It was a great place to learn not just what is but more importantly what can be. After a stint as Director of Operations with over 200 people reporting to me at the ripe old age of 25, I then moved over to become the head of Corporate Development in charge of finding new uses for cable TV (such as data communications). Once the big cities around the US began actively pursuing cable franchising they all demanded that the systems be built underground instead of on telephone poles. Having ran construction at Manhattan Cable, which was all underground, I was very much in demand by other companies who wanted to build the big city systems. I eventually took the General Manager slot at Valley Cable in Los Angeles, which was the first 61 channel two-way interactive system in the US. It was there that I had responsibility for everything including programming and finance. That rounded out my skill set.
Q: For me E! Entertainment Television is the part of your career that stands out most, how did the idea come about
A: The cable company I worked for in Los Angeles eventually sold out and moved back to Toronto. I was not going from LA and the great weather back to anywhere where there is snow, so I started thinking of what’s next for me. By that time, I started to think about doing things more entrepreneurial instead of working for another big company. A good friend from back east Alan Mruvka and I brainstormed and we spent a lot of time thinking about the phrase we heard so often back then, which was “cable TV is an electronic newspaper”. We thought about it a lot and realized that while CNN was the front section, ESPN the sports section, and so on, the glaring thing missing was the entertainment section. So we set out to be just that but in a modern niche network sense. If MTV was about music we would be the network about film, TV, and celebrities.
Q: In the beginning years, did you have any doubts that E! would be a success?
A: Absolutely none and that’s what most people find hard to believe. For Alan and I the idea was so simple and so logical that we never thought it would be anything other than a huge success. Now convincing investors was another story and we frequently heard “well it’s a good idea but you are no Rupert Murdoch.”
Q: As an entrepreneur, it takes diligence to stick with an idea when the chips are down. What advice would you give to someone who has a great idea, but they don’t have the support they need.
A: To really be honest with yourself and if you are still of the belief your idea is a good one, then stick with it and preserve the hardship of any start-up. But on the other side of that is admitting to yourself that what seemed like a good idea at the time may not be any longer and it’s time to give it a proper burial.
Q: Larry, over the years you have created several successful companies, what are you working on now?
A: I’m focused a lot of China with our new company called Metan Global Entertainment Group. We initially were developing TV and film only in Mandarin for distribution in China, but now we are creating a lot of formats for shows that we test in China and then sell to other countries to replicate in the local language.
Q: What was the inspiration behind Metan?
A: I always like to say I pick the places that Rupert Murdoch isn’t but that symbolic for finding markets where the big US media players are not as dominant as they are here and there is more of a level playing field. Also, it wasn’t hard to see that a fast growing economy, with over 1.3 billion people would be fertile ground for new ventures of every kind with media and entertainment touching on almost all of them.