We’re sad to report the passing of Donald Taffner, Sr., who died early this morning. Don founded DLT Entertainment in 1963 — specializing in international television distribution. DLT was responsible for bringing Three’s Company (adapted from Man About the House), Too Close for Comfort (adapted from Keep it in the Family), and The Benny Hill Show to American audiences. DLT Entertainment continues to be engaged in television distribution and production worldwide. The Archive of American Television, in association with BAFTA, interviewed Mr. Taffner in 2008. Here are some excerpts from the interview:
On starting his own production and distribution company
At that time, there were also people from Australia — [Jim Oswin] and a fellow named [Len Major], who ended up over here, representing, in America, the Seven Network in Australia. And Len went back to open up a third network, which was then called the O Ten Network, and he asked me to represent them in the States. So uh, I made the judgment that if I’m going to go on my own, now is the time to do it because I don’t have to make the amount of money that I would be making 10 years later somewhere else. It would be relatively easy for me to do it now. So I got representation of that. I started my own company, representing originally broadcasters from overseas to buy their shows — to buy American shows for them. I had a group of stations in Canada and the network in Australia. And that’s how it started. Gradually, as the business grew and the broadcasters in America or the distributors in America had offices overseas, they didn’t need somebody that way. So I then switched and sold shows from overseas in the American market. And that’s how the business grew. The first show that I sold was getting an animation studio in Australia to do work for King Features, and we did some of the Beatles’ cartoons, and we did “Crazy Cat” and “Barney Google.” They did the scripts here. And then there was “Skippy the Bush Kangaroo,” which we sold to Kellogg and then Skippy peanut butter. It’’s always fun to sell shows – there, my speech was, “Think of Lassie, except that the pet is a kangaroo.” And we sold it to Kelloggs and then we sold it to Skippy on a market-by-market basis.
On the business aspects of owning a show outright (video clip)
As far as television production was concerned, the way I did that was I find the properties, put them together, help get it started, let the creative elements work on the properties, and when they were finished with it, sell the properties so that we get the maximum out of all of it. But leave the creative people, more or less , to do it themselves. There were a lot of gambles in that originally with “Three’s Company” when I came to Thames and told them we’re not going to sell the format, we’re going to produce the format. But that means we were going to be responsible for overages if that happened. I had some luck in that Thames Television said, “Oh, we’re not going to do that. We’re not going to be responsible for it.” So since I didn’t have any dollars, I don’t know why I said this, but, “Oh, I’ll be responsible for it.” I didn’t know how the hell I was going to get it, but I said I’ll be responsible for it. And that’s how I got more or less involved with the total control and the bigger piece of the action from everybody else in the show. By being responsible for it in the beginning. The theory behind that was if I go to the network and say, “Here’s the rights,” I end up with 2%. If I go to the network and say, “Here’s the television show,” I have ownership, and that I don’t have to give up all but 98% to be in a position. So I ended up in a very good position between the producers on the west coast and the network controlling the show — controlling the rights.
On his approach to negotiating a deal
I’ll tell you what I do, and then I think it’s salesmanship after that. I look at a show and try to find all of the elements in that show that I like. And then I talk about it. And that’s the only thing I talk about in a show. Whether it’s the little monkey that’s jumping around in a section of the screen, whether it’s the guy falling off the ledge, whatever the joke is, I talk about that. I couple that with knowing your marketplace. To know what the buyer likes and then try to get my language about my show into the language of knowing what the buyer likes. And if I can put all of these likes together, I’m selling the show. The problem that sometimes happens is after you sell the show, I’m sure there’s a formula. There’s a diminishing return on how successful your salesmanship was. And if you don’t get it to the next step quickly, it slows down. So you’ve got to keep on piling on all of the good things about a show. But the first thing is to sell yourself on the show. And the first thing that I had to do was to sell myself to know this is the only thing I’ve got to sell, so I’d better find the right things to sell about the show!
On being a totally independent producer
There aren’t many that will go my way of totally independent because the government allows the networks to control all of this television business. If they just allow them to be in their business of being studios or — or telephone lines between the producer and the people out there, that’s what they should be, and there’s a lot of money in that. Because they used to want to own my property and I said, “No. I’ll tell you what, if I can share in your income from advertisers, I’ll let you have a piece of my action.” That was a lot of bravado because they ended up with a piece of my action because I had to get on the air. But they never shared their advertising money and they always wanted more. I remember fighting down in Washington against the networks. I remember meeting up with the then-FCC chair Mark Fowler — and telling him that you’re taking my livelihood away and you’re taking the livelihood of a lot of other people who think independently – if you let them control the business. I also gave him another piece of advice. No matter how they own the show, one question should never be asked — how much of it do I own? If I own 50% of “Father Murphy” and I own no percent of “Three’s Company,” why should ‘Father Murphy” be renewed and the other one canceled? Ownership has nothing to do with it if the FCC is doing what I think they’re doing, trying to get good programming on the air. Don’t get me too excited about the networks because I think they control too much.
On how he would like to be remembered
The people that like me, like me. That’s all.
Donald L. Taffner, Sr. was interviewed for one-and-a-half hours in New York, NY. Taffner talked about his work in the television division at the William Morris Agency in the 1950s, commenting on the shows that the agency packaged in those days. He talked about his move to Paramount, running their New York office and selling such series as the adventure program Mr. Garlund. He described his founding of DLT Entertainment in the early 1960s, representing broadcasters overseas in the purchase of U.S. shows. He talked about his company’s association with Thames Television and described the tradition of programming on the BBC. He chronicled the packaging of The Benny Hill Show to market it for American television, and commented on Benny himself. He described the adaptation of several British sitcoms into successful American series, including: Three’s Company, Too Close for Comfort, and Check It Out! He spoke about his later work in live theater and series Mystery Wheel of Adventure, As Time Goes By, and My Family. The interview was conducted by John Fitzgerald in a joint venture with the British Academy of Film and Television Arts (BAFTA), on August 26, 2008.