Bobby Friedman, Always Ready for Prime Time
By Robin Jovanovich
Even with theater stages and movie theaters gone dark, there’s no business like show business. It’s where magic regularly occurs because of the abundance of talent — actors, musicians, writers, directors, and producers. One of those producers is Bobby Friedman who has worked with the best in a storied 30-plus-year career. That career began at MTV, where he was part of the start-up team, and continued at Time Warner, where he was President of AOL, Interactive Marketing, TV, & Ad Sales, and New Line Cinema, where he was Co-Chairman and launched New Line Television.
In 2013, Friedman started his own company, Bungalow Media + Entertainment. While his projects are eclectic, they have one common thread: they’re high-quality and successful. Among them are blockbuster films (“Austin Powers” and “Lord of the Rings”), television series (“Give”, an Emmy Award-winning program on charitable giving with Blair Underwood), and documentaries (Paul Simon’s “Under African Skies”, “The Panama Papers”). This week he’s filming the fourth and final episode of “Surviving Jeffrey Epstein”, which will air on Lifetime August 9 and 10, two episodes each day, creating what Friedman excitedly refers to as an “event weekend”. The tragedy unfolds through the lens of some of the young women who were sexually abused by financier Epstein. Coincidentally, Ghislaine Maxwell, Epstein’s alleged co-conspirator, was arrested and indicted this month.
He’s had his pulse on the media since graduating from Columbia University Business School in 1980 and going to work in advertising. “I was so lucky to be hired by a management team that was willing to take a risk on me and other young hires and give us creative freedom.” He has fond memories of his first year on the Proctor & Gamble account and the assignment was to produce an ad that would assure consumers of Joy dishwashing liquid’s spot-free properties.
Friedman has watched the seismic change in the entertainment landscape — from one dominated by network television stations with viewers tuning in at specific time slots to watch their favorite weekly shows and everything dependent on ratings, to the dizzying growth of cable channels that threatened the survival of the Big 3 networks, to the latest demand for original content streaming on home screens at any hour.
“Change is upon us, and opportunity abounds,” he observed. “The interesting thing is that new platforms haven’t killed off the old ones. People still watch network and cable shows, but only the good shows. Content is what viewers are looking for.”
When MTV was launched in 1981, the media said it would only last five years. Nearly 40 years later, the cable channel is Viacom’s flagship property. Friedman traces MTV’s enduring success to the fact that it offers lively programming and opened up another revenue stream, subscriptions. “We created a brand and a marketable difference from other brands, as Avis rental car did with its ‘We Try Harder’ Campaign and 7-Up did as the ‘Uncola’.”
He is excited to be living and working in a period of velocity of change never experienced before. “It’s both a challenge and a threat. You have to be a smart marketer to get your shows and series produced, even with the seemingly endless need for content. On the positive side, there is a total disregard for economics in that the survival of a show is not ratings-driven and the quality of the shows is as good as the best shows in the 1950s and 1960s.”
The winner of all this change is the consumer says Friedman, who admits to having become something of a binger during the quarantine because of the variety and quality of what’s showing on Netflix, Amazon, Hulu, and more. His one word of caution to those who cut the cord (the cable cord), like his grown children, is that the bills from all those service providers can add up to more than your old cable bill!
Nearly a decade ago, Friedman was asked to give the Commencement Address at Columbia Business School. Would he deliver a very different message today? we asked him. “My words would be different but I’m still a firm believer in seizing the day, taking every opportunity to expand creatively, intellectually, and operating with integrity.”