Susan Leigh Bender does things differently. First she entered show business from the “show” portion, as a nightclub singer to be exact. Later, she moved into the industry from the “business” side, and, in the process, she ended up selling programs to Latin American TV stations without speaking Spanish.
In addition, when she started in the industry, the TV business was a male-dominated field, with women relegated to secretarial jobs. In this respect Bender is a pioneer, similar to other female international TV sales executives such as Claude S. Perrier and Gilberte de Turenne in France, Giuliana Nicodemi in Italy, Mex Hartmann in Germany and Alice Donenfeld in the U.S.
Finally, TV distributors usually start working in indie companies and then move to studios; Bender instead went from a studio position and became an independent distributor.
But before that challenge, which saw her moving from a studio to an indie and culminated in a 45-year career that is still going strong, Bender went through a dramatic, if short, interlude as a sales executive at Harmony Gold, which was in the midst of international intrigue and court action.
As vice president, Latin American Television Sales, Bender worked at Paramount International Television for 20 years, starting in 1986. Before that, she was executive director, International Sales at Metromedia Produces, a company she joined in 1972.
At Paramount she worked under three division presidents: Bruce Gordon, Gary Marenzi and Armando Nuñez Jr. “But,” she said, “even though I was paid up until 2006, I actually left in 2005.” Bender added that during that time she “never did output deals. I simply didn’t believe in them.”
At Metromedia she worked with Paul Rich and, for two years under Herb Lazarus. Rich recalled: “Susan pretty much ran the Latin American sales operation by herself. At MIP-TV in 1980, she approached me and said, ‘Paul, I’ve got this client from Argentina who has owed us a lot of money for a while and wants to see you immediately.’ As the client approached me, he was carrying a large manila envelope, and blurted out, ‘This is for you to pay the balance of what I owe you.’ I opened it, and inside was $100,000 in bonds! I loved it when our clients paid their bills (especially Latin Americans), but, at the sight of all that money, I panicked, but the ever-reliable Susan remained cool, took the envelope, walked across the street to a bank, and deposited it in a Metromedia account we had established there.”
During an interview at NATPE Miami last January, Bender admitted that she didn’t know how the bonds worked. “The bank took care of cashing them,” she said.
While on the subject, Bender reported that throughout her TV sales career, she never had collection problems in Latin America. “Late payment, yes, but we always got paid,” she added.
In effect, the bonds were the only possible form of payment at that time, when TV stations purchased their government bonds with local currency and used them to pay foreign suppliers. For a discount on the face value banks bought the bonds, which were re-sold or cashed when interests matured.
Bender is a product of America’s heartland, born in Youngstown, Ohio. She was a Theater Arts major at Purdue University, in West Lafayette, Indiana. As such, she was the typical no-nonsense, practical person with good, down-to-earth common sense.
Indeed, from the time Bender started on stage in 1969 as a singer in Santa Monica, California, to when she entered the TV business at Metromedia Producers, only three years had passed. And from there she went to become vice president, Latin America Television Sales at Paramount TV International 14 years later.
Here’s how Bender recalled the start of her career and especially meeting an American star like Bob Hope: “When I turned 21 years old, Los Angeles was the place to start a singing career, so I auditioned for a very famous nightclub in Santa Monica, California called The Horn. It was famous in the ’60s and ’70s for showcasing aspiring talent – including Steve Martin, Andy Griffith and Phyllis Diller, to name a few. I was accepted, the youngest to showcase there, and one night the manager of ‘The New Christy Minstrels’ was in the audience. After my performance, he asked me to come and audition for the group, [which I joined].”
Founded in 1961, the “Minstrels” is still an American large-ensemble folk music group also famous for having recorded the 1940 song, This Land Is Your Land.
Bender continued: “In 1970, ‘The New Christy Minstrels’ went on a United Service Organizations (USO) Tour to entertain our troops in Korea and Japan. And there, I met Bob Hope.”
The singer, comedian and movie star had been involved with USO Tours since World War II and the U.S. government honored him with A Military Order of the Purple Heart and named a vessel, “USNS Bob Hope.”
“I eventually became a very close friend of Bob Hope’s niece, Avis Hope,” Bender added, “and over the years Bob Hope and his wife, Dolores, became ‘Uncle Bob and Aunt Dolores,’ when I was in their company with Avis.”
Not long after, Bender left the “Minstrels” to embark on her own nightclub act, but she recalled, “I had a period of six weeks with no club dates, and needed to earn some money. I went to an employment agency in Hollywood, California, to see if I could find something short-term. There was a position open at Metromedia Producers Corp., in music royalties. I was told very confidentially that the supervisor was extremely difficult to work for, and I would be considered lucky if I could last the six weeks. To make a long story short, we got on famously, and my six weeks turned into 13 years!”
She continued: “During my days at Metromedia Producers Corp., I learned the television business from the bottom up beginning with music royalties, then to accounting, then to worldwide contract administration, and finally to executive director of international sales. My special emphasis was in Latin America. Strange as it may seem, the majority of my clients understood English, and I understood a lot of Spanish.
“Even though the ‘speaking’ part was difficult from both sides, there was always a person in the traveling group of executives who spoke English. As time went on, the children of many of our buyers were educated in the United States, and many of them took over the leadership of their TV channels – especially in Central America. [I was] no different really than handling Japan and not speaking Japanese! There is always a way to communicate.”
In 1977 Bender was sent to work in domestic and international administration under Klaus Lehmann at Metromedia’s New York City office, where she controlled the activities of 15 foreign representatives for 130 territories. Two years later, she returned to her L.A. office to work under Herb Lazarus and Alan Silverbach.
Then in 1982 she was sent to Metromedia’s Boston office, reporting to Paul Rich, and three years later asked to return to Los Angeles. By then Bender’s office moved from the old Playboy Building on Sunset Blvd. to KTTV, a Metromedia TV station.
After Rupert Murdoch’s Fox acquired Metromedia, Bender was looking forward to a vacation before job hunting. One morning at 6 a.m. she received a call from Paramount International Television’s president, Bruce Gordon, saying that veteran LATAM executive Ramon Perez was retiring, and he offered her a sales position to replace him.
“Perplexed, I answered that I had to think it over,” she recalled, and then continued, “once off the phone I started to berate myself for such stupidity. How could I have answered that way was beside me! So, I immediately called Bruce back and accepted the offer, but I asked if I could take a one-week vacation first. He said yes, but he wanted me on the lot for that May 1986 Screenings. I remained at Paramount for the next 20 years.”
The May Screenings in Hollywood were then 22-year-old rituals that in 1983 VideoAge re-named “L.A. Screenings,” and with which Bender was very familiar. She recalled that at Metromedia, starting in 1980, she invited clients to screen at KTTV, followed by a cocktail party on the station’s rooftop terrace. In 1984, Metromedia began having the stars of their shows (like Fantasy Island and Charlie’s Angels) meet with buyers during the Screenings.
For studios’ international sales executives, maintaining a poker face while screening a bad show for clients has always been a challenge, hence the Hollywood expression, “if they want me to also watch the show, they have to pay me extra.” Coming from an artistic background, this challenge was more prominent for Bender, who tried “to keep my bias out of judgments. I tried to be fair even though some shows were better than others [for my clients].”
The Screenings also involved plenty of dinners with clients. Recalled Marcel Vinay Sr., who met Bender when she was at Paramount and he was a buyer for Mexico’s Televisa: “Susan had a very loud laugh, so when she started laughing at a restaurant, the whole room would start looking at us.”
In addition to screening on the Paramount lot, Bender also traveled extensively throughout the region, even covering small territories, “but never in Colombia because the studio was concerned for my safety,” she explained.
The LATAM region presented another challenge for Bender, a woman traveling alone in an environment that Vinay described as “very tough for women who had to deal with very aggressive Latin males.” “But,” confessed Bender, “I never had any problem because I demanded and received the utmost respect. As a result, I became a part of their ‘family’ and remain so to this day.”
Never married, Bender was “engaged to be married three times, but ultimately I decided that my career was more important. Still, I never returned any of the engagement rings. In effect, I’m an unclaimed treasure,” she joked.
After her contract at Paramount expired in 2006, Bender became a consultant (with the title of president) at Frank Agrama’s Harmony Gold, responsible for worldwide sales. At that time, Agrama was enmeshed in Italy’s Mediaset trial for false accounting, among other charges. He was acquitted in 2014 due to an expired statute of limitations. But, said Bender, “the topic was never discussed at the office.”
After that one-year experience, in 2007 Bender returned to New York City and formed her own distribution company: Bender Media Services, and hired Sally Treibel, a former TV sales executive at Seagull Communications, headquartered in Lima, Peru.
“I always liked New York and I was glad to go back. Plus, I had a vacation house in Maine, where I still spend my summers and falls,” she said.
Premising that television distribution is “a relationship-type of business,” Bender acknowledged some challenges she faces now as an independent TV content distributor to Latin America: “Stations are producing and co-producing more, so they’re buying less. My job is now to find out what they need to fill their reduced available slots and alert my producers. Fortunately,” she added, “I don’t have to bid for product.”
Indeed, bidding for quality product is becoming a problem for LATAM indie distributors because it increases costs that cannot be transferred to buyers.
“This gringa definitely has Latin blood,” she concluded, “The only gringa to handle Latin America for a major studio that always spoke English (I understand Spanish, but am ‘too shy’ to speak it). And as the old song says, “The best is yet to come!”
(By Dom Serafini)
Audio Version (a DV Works service)