The last time I spoke with Norman was Friday, June 12. It was to complete the following tribute. He also asked me to find him a nice Jewish lady in New York City. I still cannot believe that he’s passed away.
An Anecdotally Busy Business Life, Seriously
Norman Horowitz began his career in the television industry in his native New York City in 1960 at the age of 28 as assistant to Lloyd Burns, president of Screen Gems International, “where we sold to overseas broadcasters television content and feature films rights owned by Columbia Pictures,” recalled Horowitz. “We tried to sell our programs for as much money as possible, and they tried to buy the programs for as little as possible. Sadly for the content industry at that time there was a larger supply of programs than there were buyers for the programs and the prices were depressed.”
And thus was born his professional life in the international TV distribution business, which, throughout the years, was marked by amusing anecdotes, reflecting his philosophy that making money doing what he liked and having a great life was fun. And this is all thanks to his military service in the U.S. Air Force, where he learned to repair radio receivers.
In 1962, he was appointed vice president of Sales, and three years later became Screen Gems International’s executive vice president of Worldwide Sales.
It was about that time when he accompanied his boss John Mitchell on a trip to Australia, having been invited by Kerry Packer, the owner of the Nine Network. Packer, Horowitz remembered, “told John that the prices paid for American-owned content were increasing out of control and asked to use his influence to create ‘an orderly marketplace’ with small increases in prices every year or two.
“But Packer also said, however, that he increased his ad rates every couple of months and that the advertisers had no choice but to pay what he wanted. I asked Kerry what had happened to ‘the orderly marketplace’ theory and asked why were things different when he was selling than when he was buying? ‘Norman, this is about my money, that’s why,’ he replied.”
In 1968, Horowitz moved on to CBS International, where he served as director of International Sales for two years.
At CBS he worked under Ralph Baruch, the future founder of Viacom. And that period presented another one of Horowitz’s anecdotes: “Ralph wanted me to screen a pilot that we had done. Following the screening I wrote two memos: one praising the pilot and the other (my truth) about how horrible it was. When I asked him what he thought of the pilot and he said that he loved it, I took out the ‘I loved it’ memo and Ralph was pleased, but as he turned to leave I gave him the other memo and he wanted to kill me.”
To Horowitz that anecdote demonstrated that determining what works and what doesn’t in film and television is pure luck.
Naturally, he said it with more flare: “As a television executive with responsibilities in sales, management and production, I realized early on that many people in all aspects of television and motion pictures earned significant amounts of money believing that ‘they knew’ and were scared to death that people would find out that they don’t really know.”
Horowitz continued, “My business life has involved pitching program concepts to television programmers who would as a rule say, in one form or other: ‘that will never work.’ The truth was that they did not know what would work but were busy pretending that they knew.”
Back to his career path: In 1970 Horowitz became VP of International Sales at Columbia Pictures Television, and three years later, he was promoted to president of Columbia Pictures Television’s International Sales and, subsequently, president of Worldwide Sales, which encompassed both domestic (U.S.) and international program distribution. Not that he needed more anecdotes, but Horowitz was at Columbia also in the midst of president David Begelman’s embezzlement scandal.
“It was in 1973 that I moved to Los Angeles with my then-wife, two children and a Maltese named Annabelle,” he recalled.
After 10 years at Columbia, in 1980, Horowitz moved on to serve as president of Polygram Television, where he remained until 1986, when he became president of MGM/UA Telecommunications.
“At MGM/UA,” Horowitz said, “I commissioned a pilot of Queen for a Day and I changed it from a program that depended on pathos and tragedy while demeaning and exploiting women, and tried to make it ‘uplifting’ in the belief that it would make ‘better television.’ Boy was I wrong about the program! I was an East coast ‘elitist’ and believed that I could ‘enlighten’ the masses. I was both arrogant and most of all dead wrong.”
In the six years Horowitz was at MGM, the group went through five different ownerships: First in 1986 Ted Turner bought it, but he sold the group a few months later back to previous owner Kirk Kerkorian; in 1990 it was acquired by Pathé and led by Giancarlo Parretti, and later it was passed on to Parretti’s creditor, Credit Lyonnais. In 1996 it was purchased by Australia’s Seven Network. (In March 1999, Parretti was found guilty of misuse of MGM funds and fraud. He was sentenced in absentia to four years in prison by a Paris court. He had also been arrested, and released, by the Italian police five times.)
In 1992, Horowitz “was thrown out of MGM/UA by Seven Network’s boss Christopher Skase,” who later became one of Australia’s most wanted fugitives, but who ended Horowitz’s 32-year career in the film and television distribution business.
As the final anecdote for this feature, Horowitz recalled his first TV trade show: “It was probably in 1971 that I attended my first MIP-TV while at Screen Gems with my two associates, Herb Lazarus and Ken Page, who was based in London.
“To call the exhibition space at ‘The Old Palais’ inadequate would be an understatement. To compensate for that, we rented a salon at the Carlton Hotel and imported a Sony player and cassettes of all of our pilots.
“All was well until we were asked to see the market director general Bernard Chevry. He said that he was happy that we rented space at the Palais, but exhibitors were complaining that we were taking people away from the market to the hotel.
“As I recall, MCA was also screening in the hotel and did not rent space in the market. “We complained that the screening space at the Palais was horrid and he offered us extra space for the next market.
“But then Bernard, wishing to have the last word, told us as we were leaving something like: ‘And just in case you change your mind about what we had agreed, I’ll have you banned from the city and make it impossible to obtain hotel rooms.’
“We all had a history of being threatened by our clients, but none of us had ever been threatened by a supplier.
“We did not return to MIP-TV. We stayed out of the market until, as I recall, 1979. While it was lovely coming to Cannes, Bernard was not going to mess with us,” Horowitz said. “At the same time, I’m ashamed to call what we did in Cannes ‘work.’ How bad could it be having a buffet lunch at the Carlton Beach Restaurant, eating the best food in the world and pretending that we weren’t looking at the topless women?”