In his 20 years with MCA and beyond, British-born Colin P. Davis saw the group, which was founded in 1924, go through a roller coaster of ownership changes.
It was first sold to Matsushita (Japan) in 1990 and renamed MCA-Universal. Five years later, it was acquired by Seagram (Canada) and renamed Universal Studios. Subsequently, in 2000, the studio was sold to Vivendi (France) and became Vivendi-Universal. Four years later, it was sold to General Electric, which owned the U.S. TV network, NBC, and was renamed NBCUniversal. In 2011, NBCUniversal was taken over by Comcast.
However, Davis explained that he went through three out of the five ownership changes before retiring.
Davis came from the TV sponsorship sector and joined MCA TV in Toronto in 1977, where he handled all licensing of television product produced by MCA-Universal Studios for English and French Canada. The NATPE market of that year was his first TV trade show, followed by MIP-TV in 1978. In those years, only 150 international program buyers, he recalled, attended the L.A. Screenings (then called the May Screenings).
Remembered Michael J. Solomon, then vp at MCA TV International, “As soon as Colin was hired, I was dispatched to Toronto for a week to instruct him about the international TV content distribution business, since he didn’t have experience in the field.”
However, he learned fast. Ron Suter, who worked under Davis from 1986 and who’s now evp NBCUniversal Television & New Media Distribution Canada, recalled that Davis was “misunderstood by many due to his business centered focus, [but] he was a team player, great entrepreneur and philanthropic with his knowledge, friendship, and support of corporate, personal and team growth.”
Roger Cordjohn, who started at MCA TV in 1964 first in London and later in Paris, said: “Colin’s management style was visionary, inspirational and rewarding … and let’s not forget his unique sense of humor. He had excellent narration skills and enjoyed a good relationship with the trade press. Colin’s introductory presentations to our L.A. Screenings became a highlight for our clients, so much so that they were asking copies of his speeches!” Cordjohn retired from what was then NBCUniversal in 2005.
About the L.A. Screenings, Davis recalled a funny vignette with Italy’s media tycoon Silvio Berlusconi. During one of his Hollywood’s visits, Berlusconi and Davis met over lunch at the Polo Lounge of The Beverly Hills Hotel where, in order to get the 1982 series Tales of the Gold Monkey, he insisted on unilaterally changing the agreement to rotate MCA product between his network and Italy’s RAI. Since it was RAI’s turn to get the new series, Berlusconi left empty-ended, but the series was cancelled after just five episodes, so he came on top after all.
In 1978, Davis moved to New York City as EVP of International for MCA TV, first under Ralph Franklin, who hired him. Later, in 1980, Davis transferred to Hollywood to work under Bob Bramson, a former FBI agent who went first to work in the legal department of MCA’s Chicago office before taking over the international TV distribution division. Davis remembered that working under Franklin was very difficult, but wouldn’t elaborate. A story widely circulated at various TV trade shows told of Bramson being wounded in the ill-fated paratroopers’ drop in March of 1945 over the Rhine, where German soldiers were awaiting for them. Reportedly, among the soldiers shooting at the Americans was Franz J. Elmendorff, who in 1961 was hired by MCA and later worked affably under Bramson. However, the story cannot be fully verified, and the two men would never speak about their wartime experiences.
Gary Marenzi, head of Entertainment Sales and Partnerships, IMG Worldwide, remembered meeting Colin in 1989, “when I joined UIP pay-TV in London. Since UIP was a joint venture of Paramount, MCA/Universal and MGM, I got to know Colin very well since he handled international free TV sales and I handled international pay-TV sales, so we had to coordinate licensing windows. Being English, Colin used to kid me mercilessly about the dreary weather in London, where I had moved from L.A. When Colin moved to L.A., he and Peter Hughes used to call me on a regular basis just to mention how sunny and warm it was in L.A., while I was enduring the rain and gray of London!
I also spent a lot of time with Colin and the MCA/Universal team at MIP-TV, MIPCOM and the Monte Carlo TV Market. Colin always had a stand in the ‘bunker’ of the Palais. It was the best place for me as a young executive to hang out as I got to meet all of the senior buyers, but every once in a while I had to babysit a buyer or two who Colin was trying to avoid.
In Monte Carlo, Colin, Worldvision’s Bert Cohen and I would often grab a table in the lobby bar of the Loews Hotel, and we’d just watch the buyers walk by as if we were at the reviewing stand of the Rose Parade. Colin and Bert were always ready with witty one-liners for everybody as they passed by,” Marenzi concluded.
In 1986, Davis was appointed president of MCA International Television. Ten years later, he retired and moved to Bermuda. He now divides his time between Bermuda, Toronto (where his daughter, Sharon, lives), and Los Angeles. He still travels with a Canadian passport even though he has dual U.K. and Canadian citizenships.
During an interview with VideoAge in Los Angeles, Davis and his former number two, Canadian-born Peter G. Hughes (who was hired by Davis in 1978 in Toronto), recalled some of his accomplishments in the international television distribution business. For example, he’s proud of being “one of the four executives who claim to have invented the ‘output deal’ in 1988,” although he declined to name the other three executives.
Davis explained that under that deal, buyers committed to acquire new product and library material, and that the new sales strategy was refined from the then-existing output deal.
Davis also recalled how he didn’t like the name MCA TV because it “wasn’t clear to all that it was actually Universal Studios,” and at every occasion during trade shows, he would place a Universal sign under MCA TV in his stand. (From 1962 to 1995 MCA had been the parent company of Universal Studios.)
To Davis, the biggest challenge of those early days of private television was “dealing with people who actually owned the TV networks.” Additionally, he said, “Only a few corporate executives in the U.S. really understood international television.”
Davis had his own understated style of management. While other studios would race each other to get the largest booths at trade shows, he’d be happy chain smoking (when it was still allowed) inside a tiny booth. In between meetings, he’d stand outside his booth greeting passersby.
The reason for such parsimony was to show his bosses, and in particular MCA’s top executive, the widely feared Lew Wasserman, that his division was cost-conscious. However, knowing that Davis’s division did not need much money to operate, his budget would regularly be the first to be cut.
This reporter remembers a personal anecdote: Davis’s booths were always on the main corridor of whatever trade show he participated at, and inevitably he’d be smoking outside his booths from the early mornings with a copy of one of VideoAge’s market dailies in hand.
The biggest challenge for me was trying to avoid Davis in the morning, before his time was taken up by meetings. This was because as soon he’d see me from a distance (while I was trying to hide), he’d signal to come to his booth, where he’d open pages of VideoAge Daily with paragraphs highlighted in yellow marker.
Davis never complained about his own coverage, but in his usual frank and direct way, he’d start a diatribe on why we wrote negative comments, which, in his view, only papers like The New York Times were allowed to use. My stock answer was that VideoAge was like a mirror and reflected all the opinions that were out there. And if the answer did not satisfy him, I’d suggest he stop reading it and instead look at the photos, which always got a big laugh (with a cough) from him.
Davis was known as an avid smoker (he eventually quit after a bout with several cancers, but his “devotion” to tobacco was legendary). Once, during a fire alarm, he barricaded himself in his Black Tower office in Universal City in order to finish his cigarette. After Matsushita took over MCA and banned all smoking inside the building, Davis would hide in the Tower’s garage in order to smoke: he wasn’t alone, but in the company of some Japanese executives.
Born in London, Davis worked in a bank after serving in the Royal Navy’s Air Force, where he was conscripted in 1948. In 1953, he was sent by the bank to its Toronto branch, which he left after a few years. In order to find a job, soon after he quit the bank post, he left for Chicago. He quickly returned to Toronto to join manufacturer Procter & Gamble Canada in 1956, when at 26 years old, he supervised television sponsorships by all company brands. He later moved to Brand Management and worked on introducing Crest toothpaste to consumers.
In 1960, Davis moved on to a position as media director in the Toronto office of the U.S. advertising agency Young & Rubicam (Y&R), where he established a TV department at the same time that Canada’s first private TV network, CTV, was created. Later, he moved to Account Management as head of Client Services, and syndicated some of the sponsored TV shows that Y&R owned. In 1977, he joined MCA, a company he loved.
This reporter remembers how proud Davis was of the fact that the MCA commissary was the first studio to offer edamame: We would sit at a table just across that of a retired Lew Wasserman (who would have lunch by himself), and after a respectful bow to the former boss, we’d sit to munch on piles of edamame.
(By Dom Serafini)
Audio Version (a DV Works service)