by Seth Abramovitch – The comic turned mogul has played the long game since he was a kid, acquiring assets like The Weather Channel and taking a racial equality dispute with Comcast all the way to the Supreme Court: “I’d love to own CNN. … And I will.”
On June 14, as much of the country poured out of self-quarantine and into the streets in support of Black Lives Matter, Byron Allen let his feelings be known in characteristic fashion — which is to say from the rooftops. The stand-up comic turned media mogul spent $1 million to buy two pages in eight major papers — including The New York Times, Los Angeles Times and The Washington Post — to run an op-ed he’d tapped out on his laptop, titled, “Black America Speaks. America Should Listen.”
“I knew white media wasn’t going to publish it,” Allen, 59, asserts of the essay, which traces childhood memories of the National Guard invading his Detroit neighborhood after unrest following Martin Luther King Jr.’s assassination, then lays out a nine-step plan to eradicate racial inequality, including education reform and reparations. “Because that’s talking about how you really fix it. White America doesn’t want to fix this. White America is not interested in giving up any of their pie.”
Allen would know. As one of the few African Americans to own and run a major media company — and his Entertainment Studios is major, producing more than 60 syndicated TV shows; owning The Weather Channel and seven more 24-hour cable networks; acquiring and distributing features like 47 Meters Down and Hostiles; snapping up TheGrio, a Black-interests website; and, most recently, purchasing 15 local TV stations, representing all the Big Four broadcast networks — he has witnessed firsthand the roadblocks to Black entrepreneurs wanting a piece of the big-media game.
“African Americans don’t have access to capital,” Allen says. “It’s amazing that for the first 15 to 20 years of my company, I couldn’t get a single bank loan.” It was that early resistance, however, that fired his ambitions, turning what started in 1993 as a one-man operation in his dining room (his mom fielded calls as his “executive assistant”) into a muscular media company that Allen values in the low-10 figures. “If someone offered me $5 billion for the company,” he says, “I would not accept it.”
Along the way, he’s had a habit of ruffling feathers and commanding headlines — such as with the $30 billion racial discrimination lawsuits he filed against Comcast and Time Warner Cable (now Charter) in 2015 for refusing to carry his channels, which wound itself all the way up to the Supreme Court. Or calling President Barack Obama “a white president in blackface” to TMZ, in response to Obama’s calling Baltimore looters “thugs” after the 2015 death of Freddie Gray, a young Black man who suffered fatal injuries while in policy custody.
But there are no regrets. Today, in the shadow of George Floyd’s killing — what he likens to a “horizontal lynching” — Allen feels entirely vindicated. “A lot of Black people were upset about [the Obama insult], but I’m glad I said it. And now, five years later, people finally understand what I’m saying.” The loans, meanwhile — like the $300 million he raised in 2018 to buy The Weather Channel — come much easier these days. And if his old-school bluster makes him sound like a mogul with something to prove, that’s perfectly fine with him.
“For me, it’s important to own something — especially in America, as an African American,” he says. “As far as I’m concerned, I can’t own enough. It’s not possible. I haven’t even begun.”
As media mogul origin stories go, Allen’s is a good one. The summer after the unrest in Detroit in April ’68, his mother, Carolyn — who had him at 17 — packed up the car and moved her 7-year-old son to L.A. (Raised an only child, Allen has a half-brother on his father’s side; he remained close with his dad, who stayed in Detroit and died in 2019.) Carolyn enrolled in UCLA’s film department in 1971 and talked her way into an internship at NBC — she actually suggested the program and was its first recruit — and was eventually promoted to publicist. Byron’s day care routine involved hanging out at the Burbank studios, where he’d observe the biggest comedy stars of the day at work — giants like Redd Foxx, Freddie Prinze and, most intently, Tonight Show host Johnny Carson, who’d greet him in the corridors with a bright “Hello, Byron! How are you, young man?”
By his early teens, Allen wanted to give comedy a try. He heard the place to be was The Comedy Store, so he would loiter on the Sunset Strip every night, pages of jokes tucked in his pocket, hoping to win a spot on the open-mic stage. His persistence paid off: Owner Mitzi Shore eventually let him inside to perform, so long as he promised not to drink. (To this day, he has never touched alcohol, drugs or cigarettes. “I don’t even golf,” Allen says.) The jokes were apparently good enough to get him scouted by Jimmie “J.J.” Walker, the breakout star of CBS’ Good Times. So at just 14, Allen would be dropped off by his mom at Walker’s house, where he sat alongside two promising young comics pitching jokes at $25 a pop. Their names were Jay Leno and David Letterman.
“He always pitched well,” Leno recalls. “It was never like, ‘Oh God — would this kid just shut up?’ Our points of reference were so different — I mean, he was literally a teenager in school and we were adults out of college. But he always brought an interesting sensibility to it. He was good at finding the right word.”
By 18, Allen landed a life-changing spot on The Tonight Show, the youngest comic ever to take that stage. Delivered in a tweed blazer, his act was mostly soft-edged observational humor about his parents, with occasional stabs at edgier material. (One joke involving a Native American war cry would not fly today.) That one appearance — bolstered by Carson’s affection for Allen — led to a number of TV offers. He chose NBC’s Real People, an early reality show, which made Allen famous as he crossed the country profiling quirky Americans.
When Eddie Murphy made his first trip out to L.A. in 1980 — he was in his first season of Saturday Night Live and was booked to appear on The Tonight Show — he was determined to meet Allen. “Byron was one of my first inspirations,” Murphy says. “When I was a kid, Byron was on Real People. Then he’s writing for TV shows and shit like that. I knew about him when I was starting out — that there was this guy who was about the same age as me out there making it happen.”
Allen appeared on Real People from 1979 to 1984, but when contract negotiations went sour — a younger, cuter teen was brought in as a co-host — Allen decided to take matters into his own hands. (“It’s business show,” goes one of his favorite mantras. “Not show business.”) He refinanced his home in 1992 to produce his own celebrity talk show that taped seven times a week. “I had to pay the cameraman, the sound man, the tape stock,” he recalls. “It was really tough for about five years.”
Allen sold the show by calling hundreds of network affiliates around the country. He’d often call the same station dozens of times before landing a yes. (He got station managers to pick up by asking for the newsroom and having them transfer him.) After a few years of producing the show and living hand-to-mouth, he’d compiled enough footage to cut together an hourlong special of interviews with celebrity athletes like Michael Jordan and Oscar De La Hoya. It cost him $20,000 to produce and earned him $1 million in commercial sales. “Back then it was ‘1-800 SPRAY-ON HAIR,’ ‘1-800 24-HOUR ABS,’ ” he says of his early advertisers. “That special got me off my dining room table and allowed me to open my offices in Century City and start hiring.”
It was a lightbulb moment: Content would forever be king, and whoever has the most, wins. Today, Allen produces more than 60 shows — a mix of Allen-hosted talkers, celebrity game shows like Funny You Should Ask and courtroom shows like The Verdict With Judge Hatchett — most of them done quickly and on the cheap. (Allen likes to tell the story about how he paid Paramount Studios $1 to take a discarded courtroom set off their hands.) “He doesn’t take no for an answer,” says buyer Peter Dunn, president of CBS Television Group. “He’s very aggressive, very confident and thinks big. That’s great for a businessperson.”
Twelve years ago, Allen turned his attention to owning cable channels. He did so in an unusual way: by snapping up every desirable dot-TV domain name. “I own all the premium dot-TVs,” he says. “Comedy.TV, Cars.TV, Pets.TV. I have dot-TVs I haven’t even turned on yet: Sports.TV, Kids.TV.” Go to those URLs now and you won’t find much — the content on those Allen-owned HD channels resides on cable and satellite TV. Verizon was an early buyer when it started its FiOS fiber-optic network in 2009, launching six of his channels in a single day. But other cable giants held off — and that rubbed Allen the wrong way.
In December 2014, he embarked upon what would become a five-year legal odyssey that would initially draw snickers from the industry — but Allen may have the last laugh. “I’m not a litigious person,” he says. “I have not filed that many lawsuits — I think I have filed four in my life, but they’ve been big and epic.” His case hinged on the Civil Rights Act of 1866, the country’s first civil rights law, enacted to ensure that newly freed slaves had a pathway to economic inclusion. Former President Bill Clinton was so impressed with the tactic, he personally congratulated Allen on exploiting a largely untested law.