Johnathan Rodgers Biography
Johnathan Rodgers is among the nation's most influential television executives. He served as the highest-ranking black executive at an American television network from 1990 to 1996; then expanded Discovery Network into a multi-billion dollar success in the cable industry, and in 2003 helped launch a new black-oriented cable channel called TV One.
Throughout his career, Rodgers has held to the philosophy that a television station is in business to make money, but never at the expense of the community it serves. In fact, Rodgers believes that a station should be a member of the community. "He encourages the general managers to understand the neighborhoods and the people they serve," Upscale ZSL magazine wrote of his time at CBS. "He wants the stations to be advocates for good in the community." And Rodgers stayed true to his philosophy in 2004 as he described the success of TV One's first year, telling Adweek:"I am not only proud of the people here, but I am really proud of the industry.... It is those Berkeley leanings—accomplishing something not only in the right way, but for the right reasons."
Rodgers attributes his understanding of people—and of the importance of community—to his childhood as the son of a military officer. "I was born in Texas, went to grade school in southern California and lived in Rantoul, Ill., for four years," he told Steve Daley of the Chicago Tribune. "If you grow up that way, moving every couple of years, going to different schools, meeting new kids all the time, you have to develop some skills for dealing with people."
At the same time that Rodgers was developing his strong people skills, he was also deciding on a career in journalism. And so, after graduating from the University of California at Berkeley in 1967 with a bachelor's degree in journalism, Rodgers took a job as a reporter at Sports Illustrated. Two years later, he became a reporter for Newsweek.
Rodgers's journalism career was put on hold for a few years while he served in the armed forces. Once out of the army, he went back to school to get a master's degree in communications from Stanford University. With an advanced degree in his pocket, he went back to Newsweek in 1972 as an associate editor.
By the next year, Rodgers felt that his career in print journalism wasn't moving fast enough. He decided to try his hand at electronic journalism. "What happened was," a Newsweek colleague would later tell Cheryl Lavin of the Chicago Tribune, "he got into TV-land and cased the joint. He looked at himself and said, 'I'm never going to be the greatest reporter, but I think I could be a hell of a producer.'" Ironically, after only one year as a writer-producer for WNBC-TV in New York, Rodgers changed his mind and left that station to become an on-air reporter for WKYC-TV in Cleveland, Ohio.
While working at WKYC-TV, Rodgers became reacquainted with an old friend from his military days, Royal Kennedy, who was also an on-air reporter at the station. Eight months later, when she was offered a job in Chicago, Rodgers decided that he didn't want a long-distance romance, so he quit his job and followed her. After they were married, Rodgers spent nearly a year making the rounds at all the local television stations looking for work. "It was awful," he told Lavin. "More awful for her than for me. People would say to her: 'So what's you husband doing now? Just living off your money?'" Nobody was interested in giving Rodgers a job in television, but he was offered a job as a sports reporter for the Chicago Tribune. He turned the job down, though, because he wanted to work in television.
One night while at a dinner party in 1976, Rodgers met Jay Feldman, then news director at WBBM-TV in Chicago. Feldman was impressed with Rodgers's intelligence and personality and later offered him a job as assistant news director. Their working relationship proved to be so successful that when Feldman was appointed news director for KNXT-TV (now KCBSTV) in Los Angeles, he took Rodgers with him to be his executive producer.
Rodgers's management training in Chicago paid off as he quickly rose through the ranks at KNXT-TV—from executive producer to news director to station manager in a few years. One of the people he worked under during his tenure at the station was Van Gordon Sauter, who would later become president of CBS News.
In November of 1983, Sauter, already president of CBS News, asked Rodgers to assume executive production duties for the network's pre-dawn newscast Nightwatch. Six months later, Rodgers was promoted to executive producer of the weekend edition of the CBS Evening News. "More than any other time in the business," he told Broadcasting, "I felt that I was doing good as opposed to doing well. To cover the world and put it in a cohesive, understandable fashion was the greatest thrill in the world."
Just when Rodgers thought he had found a niche where he could stay for a time, he was called upon in November of 1985 to help save the struggling CBS Morning News. As executive producer, Rodgers promised to expand the appeal of the program and improve its dismal ratings. Unfortunately, he never had the opportunity to put his plan into action. After only three months, he took what Broadcasting called "the most politically sensitive assignment of his career."
Back in October of 1985, CBS affiliate WBBM-TV in Chicago demoted its black weekday anchor, Harry Porterfield, to a weekend anchor position so that former CBS Morning News anchor Bill Kurtis, a white journalist, could have his old job back. This action, along with the station's dismal record on minority hiring, angered the black community. Together with Jesse Jackson and Operation PUSH (People United to Serve Humanity, a civil rights group), many African Americans in Chicago started picketing WBBM-TV's offices twice a week and urged black viewers to stop watching the station's programs.
PUSH officials vowed that they would urge a national boycott of the network unless station officials agreed to a proposal they had drafted. "The proposed agreement," Peter Boyer of the New York Times wrote, "which includes a provision for monitoring compliance, also asks the station, WBBM, to contract with minority-owned businesses and to donate $10 million to the United Negro College Fund and $1 million to black organizations chosen by PUSH." The station and its network owners felt that the demands were too high, but they also knew that they had to resolve the problem as soon as possible.
In March of 1986, Rodgers was offered the position of vice president and general manager of the station, making him the first black general manager of a network-owned station. Many felt that the network brass had given Rodgers the nod because he was black and the appointment might help ease tensions between the station and the black community. Rodgers accepted the job, but only after giving it careful consideration. "I came very close to not taking this job," he told Daley, "because of the linkage, because there might have been a perception by my friends and my family and the people of Chicago that I was given this job to solve CBS's problems with Jesse Jackson and Operation PUSH. I also wasn't crazy about being the second guy it was offered to, but what swayed me was the fact that the first guy they offered it to was white. That said to me that they weren't looking for just any black guy."
Almost immediately, Rogers took charge of the situation and tried to alleviate some of the station's biggest problems, namely the boycott by PUSH, a major slippage in ratings, and a newsroom in turmoil. His first order of business was to improve morale at the station, especially in the newsroom. Rodgers brought in some new talent for the newscasts, hired more blacks, and promoted women. In fact, by the time he left the station in 1990, everything that got on the air at WBBM-TV was controlled by one of several women, who held the posts of news director, program director, promotion director, and press director at the station.
It also didn't take long for Rodgers to strengthen the bottom line of the station. From 1986 to 1989, it is estimated that revenues at the station increased from $60 million to $80 million, mainly due to Rodgers's input on programming and scheduling. He was instrumental in acquiring programs like Who's the Boss, Entertainment Tonight, and The Arsenio Hall Show to attract the high-spending viewers that advertisers want: those in the 18-49 age group. Within a few years, WBBM-TV was either first or second in the ratings in all station-controlled time periods.
In the four years that Rodgers served as vice president and general manager of the station, not only did profits and revenues increase, but the boycott against the station was defused and the relationship with minority groups was strengthened. Therefore, it came as no great surprise when he was named president of CBS Television Stations Division in August of 1990.
Praised by his coworkers for his easygoing, amiable management style, Rodgers' friendly smile wasn't the reason he won the position as president of CBS Television Stations Division. At the time of his appointment, five CBS (Columbia Broadcasting System) television stations owned and operated by the network were not prospering. CBS executives knew that Rodgers, a 14-year CBS veteran, had a proven ability to increase ratings and revenue at the other television stations for which he had worked, so they called upon him to take command of their stations in five U.S. cities—New York, Los Angeles, Chicago, Philadelphia, and Miami.
Rodgers told Donna Whittingham-Barnes of Black Enterprise soon after his promotion that he believed there were three reasons he got the job. "First, as a Midwesterner...this will help minimize New York or Los Angeles bias and may be more reflective of the country as a whole. Second, a minority perspective to CBS strategy is vital because each of the stations serves a population that is more than 40% non-white. And third, a track record."
Even though these were the factors that management believed would be necessary for his role as the liaison between the five stations and the network's sports, news, and programming departments, CBS executives knew that his people skills would be an equally important asset. In fact, management was so sure of his success that shortly after he was hired, CBS acquired two more stations, one in Green Bay, Wisconsin, and another in Minneapolis, Minnesota. It didn't take CBS long to realize they had made the correct decision.
As the leader of nine network owned-and-operated stations that broadcast to over 20 million viewers, Rodgers used the same approach at the network level that he did at the local level. Whittingham-Barnes described his tasks at the time of his promotion: "managing an operating budget of over $200 million; formulating the stations' tone and priorities regarding programming, marketing and promotion; and carving out larger market share for the network." For some, the challenge would prove overwhelming, but for Rodgers it was just another job in an industry that he loved. According to Black Enterprise, "1992 was the most lucrative year in the division's history with analysts citing profits of $185 million, up 30% from 1991." In only three years, Rodgers managed to increase viewership, profits, and revenues at six of the seven stations. Rodgers was proud of the financial accomplishments he made in the television industry. However, he was equally proud of the social changes he had been able to make along the way. Rodgers left CBS in 1996 with a strong reputation for efficient management.
He immediately signed on to preside over a burgeoning cable network: Discovery. When Rodgers arrived at Discovery Networks it had only two channels and was valued at about $1 billion. For the next six years Rodgers set his sights on developing the network. As president, he expanded the distribution of Animal Planet and the Travel Channel and launched such channels as Discovery Health Channel and Discovery Kids, and ushered in such shows as The Learning Channel's Trading Spaces. When Rodgers left Discovery in 2002, the network had 11 channels and was valued at $20 billion.
In 2003, Rodgers accepted another challenge, to create a new cable channel for African-American adults aged 24 to 54. With Black Entertainment Television capturing the attention of younger viewers, TV One seemed a prime opportunity for the cable industry. Rodgers told Adweek that he toped to create TV One as a "home base" for older African-American viewers.
In describing his plan for the channel to Business Week, Rodgers said, "The two most important lessons I learned from my television experience is to build programming to attract an audience and to create an advertising environment that advertisers find the most beneficial. These are the two most critical objectives I bear in mind as I build everything else." By early 2005 Rodgers was well on his way to getting TV One to be carried in the top 60 markets, where 90 percent of the African-American viewers reside, according to Broadcasting and Cable. Praising the channel's first year, Rodgers told Adweek, "You walk around taller having accomplished something like this."
Adweek, April 4, 2005, p. SR40.
Black Enterprise, December 1990, p. 42; February 1993, p. 126.
Broadcasting, September 17, 1990, p. 95; January 21, 1991, p. 39; April 26, 1993, p. 14.
Broadcasting and Cable, April 4, 2005, p. 56.
Business Week, September 16, 2003.
Chicago Tribune, March 20, 1986, p. C1; March 31, 1986, p. E1; September 18, 1987, p. E5; October 3, 1990, p. E1.
Ebony, February 1991, p. 20.
Jet, April 8, 1996, p. 33.
Los Angeles Times, October 30, 1985, p. F1; January 20, 1986, p. F5; March 30, 1986, p. F10; August 29, 1990, p. D2.
New York Times, March 27, 1986, p. C26; August 30, 1990, p. C20.
TelevisionWeek, April 4, 2005, p. S7; May 10, 2004, p. 8.
Time, April 14, 1986, p. 88.
Upscale, March 1993, p. 130.
Wall Street Journal, August 29, 1990, p. B4.
TV One, www.tvoneonline.com (April 28, 2005).
—Joe Kuskowski and Sara Pendergast
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