Henry Schleiff on How to Lead a TV Network, Have an Impact, and Still Have Fun

Henry Schleiff
I’m Alan Alda, and this is C+V, conversations about connecting and communicating.

The ability to communicate in this world, to communicate effectively, is so important, is so important. It’s more important than being a brain surgeon. Because really how many people can a brain surgeon save in a career? 100, 500, 5000? But in communication, entertainment, print, digital. You can affect the lives. You can influence millions of people. You can inform, you can inspire people around the world. What greater career could you possibly have than something in some form of communications?

We make a distinction around here between communication and communications, with an S. The way we look at it, communicating is connecting with people; and communications with an S is the technical way you reach out to millions, like with broadcasting. Some people find ways to combine those two ideas in ways that are interesting, like my old friend Henry Schleiff. Henry happens to work for Discovery, but before they ever became our presenting sponsor, I wanted to talk with to him on our show, because he has a thoughtful funny angle on communication that we haven’t explored yet.
Alan: 00:01 Henry, the thing that I love about you, one of the things that I love about you, is that you’ve perfected the art of doing well, while doing good. You’re in charge of several networks, and your job is to bring in the viewers. If you wanted to, you could just go for the profit. But I’m also aware that you make sure you do specials on serious, important topics that improve our lives. Am I right?
Henry: 00:29 Well, you’re certainly right in terms of the effort, for sure. I’ve been in this business for quite a while now. In some respect, it’s a privilege almost to have the access to the number of listeners, or viewers that you have at any cable network or-
Alan: 00:46 So what access do you have? How many homes are you in?
Henry: 00:49 Right now in just domestically, in the United States we pass about 82 million homes. Around the world, probably in total about 140 million homes with ID Network. The fun of ID Network is that it’s obviously about true crime stories, and what have you. But it gives you a platform. It gives you a platform that from time to time, you can actually do something, produce something that-
Alan: 01:14 Like what? What have you done? What are some of the shows you’ve done?
Henry: 01:16 A ton of programming in terms of the programming that I’m most proud of, and in some cases we’ve actually won a Peabody for programs around domestic violence, civil rights, human rights activism. We can’t do that as a steady diet, but when you can sort of integrate it in from time to time, then I think people really will be impressed by it. I think it’s part of the license almost that we have.
Alan: 01:42 The license you have comes from the popularity of these crime shows. Some of the most imaginative names in television for your series.
Henry: 01:52 Yeah.
Alan: 01:52 I’m aware with Wives With Knives.
Henry: 01:55 Always a popular one, for sure. Sinister Ministers-
Alan: 02:00 These are really shows?
Henry: 02:02 Look, Southern Fried Homicide.
Alan: 02:08 What other titles do you-
Henry: 02:09 Well, we do these titles from time to time, that are so far over the top, for sure. All variations on eye witness, and what have you. We do these to really get attention. It’s so noisy out there. As you know, whether it’s a movie or television series that’s coming. So how do you get attention? Part of the ability to break through, and grab people is something that’s reasonably clever title.
Alan: 02:33 As you know, my wife Arlene loves everyone of your shows. She’s a crime television enthusiast.
Henry: 02:44 I would be very nervous if I was you. If she’s taking notes while she’s watching.
Alan: 02:49 That’s what I’m worried about, because she likes to go to sleep with the television going, and I’m not a big fan of that. But I can’t tell her to turn it off because she’s watching Wives With Knives.
Henry: 03:00 Yeah, no. If she goes right to the kitchen after an episode, I’d get the hell out of there in a moment.
Alan: 03:10 I want to know what the pitch session is like in your office. When people are sitting around thinking, “What’s our next title?”
Henry: 03:18 It’s completely dysfunctional. People ask us … it’s basically 25, 30 people sitting around a table and yelling random things that come to mind. So we come out of it with some of the incredible dialectic representing the worst ideas possible. But when you put them together in a variation on words and stuff, it kind of works.
Alan: 03:38 So what are some you’ve rejected? Can you think of any?
Henry: 03:42 Oh my gosh, yeah. One of my favorites was about women who fall in love, or have relationships with people in prison. The title was going to be Penal Envy. We have obviously no standards and practices.
Alan: 04:05 How far did that show … not only do you have no standards and practices, you have no standards.
Henry: 04:06 No. We actually flipped that person over to help us with titles. There is pretty much no bounds. More seriously, we have to understand that we’re dealing, often times, with really significant, often times sad stories. So there is a respect that we have to bring to these shows. We try to do on air stuff with a little wink sometimes to our audience, but you have to be respectful of these are often very very tragic stories.
Alan: 04:45 Yeah, of course. The appeal … I’m always thinking in terms of communication. The appeal to the audience in a crime story, what do you suppose that is? I find them interesting because I want to see the bad guy get caught. I want to know what the circumstances were that took them apart.
Henry: 05:04 On this series of podcasts, you’ve talked about the importance of listening, and of empathy. Both of which, we actually employ, we use quite heavily in our research, and what shows we’re going to do. We listen to our audience. Meaning that we’ve learned over the years. For example, they’re not so interested in the specifics of the actual crime scene as they are in the investigation. Not so much in the tragedy, but they want to understand from the perspective of either the victim, or the victim’s family.
So you start with that. You start with that learning, how important the investigation is, rather than the crime itself, number one. Also we have the benefit of stories that have the high stakes generally speaking, of life and death. These are phenomenal stories.
If you go back to the days of people carving on caves with charcoal, and what have you. It’s basically the same story. You go to Lauscaux Caves of France, and it’s somebody running after somebody with a knife. Or a dinosaur chasing them with a whatever-
Alan: 06:10 It wouldn’t be a dinosaur.
Henry: 06:12 Whatever that thing was.
Alan: 06:13 Dinosaurs were already way gone.
Henry: 06:15 Oh, well they didn’t know that.
Alan: 06:17 They are the one’s who made up dinosaurs right?
Henry: 06:20 That’s how they managed to draw the damn picture. So those stories of personal jeopardy resonate with any audience.
Alan: 06:33 That was the success of Sherlock Holmes, was the investigation.
Henry: 06:36 Absolutely, absolutely, the intricacy. Today we use words like forensics, and what have you, in science and technology. But our audience, which is really a fanatically dedicated audience, loves the puzzle solving. That’s what we hear. We hear that term, “It’s like solving puzzles for us.”
Alan: 06:55 It’s interesting, one of the works of a scientist in Switzerland that interests me a lot is studies he did that showed that the pleasure areas in the brain are activated when we punish someone for a wrong doing. I’m wondering, do you get any indication of something like that in your research, that they want to see the bad guy caught, and serve his time?
Henry: 07:27 Absolutely. What’s very interesting is what we call the importance of a story coming to a natural conclusion, to closure. In a world in which we live in, which is very confusing world today. Oftentimes, the bad people don’t get their just desserts, and good people don’t get the recognition.
So when we can tell a story with a beginning, middle, and an end, that satisfies people, which is basically good story telling. When we do it in the context of a justice system, people feel rewarded for that. So you’re absolutely right. In a world that is confusing, and somewhat tumultuous, when we can turn to somebody and say, “This person did a bad thing.” But in the end, that person got his or hers just desserts.


Alan: 08:13 I’m very interested in story telling, and you tell stories by the dozens. You’ve thought about it a lot, and you just mentioned the beginning, the middle, and the end, which is how stories are often described. I’m very curious about how good story tellers deal with the middle part. What’s the middle part to you? I have my own ideas, I’ll tell you about that in a minute, but I want to hear your ideas.
Henry: 08:39 Well, the hardest thing in the world, or one of the hard things really is you say, “Funny is funny. A good story is a good story.” It is very hard to bridge that grab you by the neck beginning, with that satisfying end. So the trouble, or the challenge, is connecting those two with an interesting middle.
The way we try to do it is create some tension, some emotion, some sense of compassion for the victim of what’s going on. Something that connects those two. I think there’s two ways of telling a story. There’s a journalist point of view. Where you start with that headline, and you back off, and you say, “Well, here’s the reasons how, where, and why I got to that conclusion.” Or you can tell a story like a lawyer, which starts with all of the facts, and the evidence, and the arguments supporting it. It takes you to a conclusion, and it leads you. Those are two opposite ways. One starts at the top with the end-
Alan: 09:41 With the lead, don’t bury the lead.
Henry: 09:43 Don’t bury the lead. So either way, that you’ve got to be able to connect those elements, and know rationally which one you’re actually pursing.
Alan: 09:52 So here’s something that interests me a lot about the middle part of the thing, which is when I learned … actually I learned it in real life, acting on the stage. I later read that Aristotle had identified this when he was figuring out what made a play, a good play.
Henry: 10:10 This is before he drank that stuff that killed him, right?
Alan: 10:12 Right. You got to watch what you drink.
Henry: 10:16 We covered him on ID.
Alan: 10:16 He didn’t read the label. So what he talked about was dramatic action. That there’s something in the middle part of the story where the hero can’t get to the conclusion that will be satisfying, because there’s this obstacle that’s thrown in his path by the bad person, or by some circumstance.
Henry: 10:36 Exactly.
Alan: 10:37 So getting through that obstacle captures our attention. We want the hero to get through the obstacle somehow. I noticed when Don Hewitt, who invented 60 Minutes made storytelling … Grant will cut that part out. Don Hewitt, who invented 60 Minutes, made story telling his main objective. He would tell his producers … he said, “I tell them four words. Tell me a story.”
The way he handled the middle, typically I observed. I don’t know if he was aware of this. He must have been aware of it, was that the story would shift gears in the middle. You’d suddenly realize, “Oh, I thought this was about an investigation about this, but look, it’s even deeper than that. It’s an investigation about this, and it’s affecting this person in a whole unexpected way.” Do you find a shift like that happens in your middle?
Henry: 11:38 Absolutely.
Alan: 11:39 I’d like to hear more about your middle.
Henry: 11:42 It’s far more interesting than my ends. But you’re right. Whether Don Hewitt was the quintessential story teller, and always made the point that 60 Minutes, even then he said, “Would work,” and it’s proven to be the case, would work well just audio. If you didn’t see anything-
Alan: 12:01 Yeah, he cut to the audio, he didn’t cut to the image.
Henry: 12:04 That’s exactly right.
Alan: 12:05 When he was editing it, he would use the sound as his principle reading-
Henry: 12:09 I don’t know what year they’re up to, but it’s go to be 40 or 50 years that 60 Minutes has been on.
Alan: 12:09 It’s a long time.
Henry: 12:14 And basically it’s been two people talking to one another, which you would say in this world of action, “Really, is anybody going to watch that?” But after all of these years, that story telling, the one that the anchor or the host gets out of that person he’s interviewing, is riveting.
In part, the way the actions of that individual, or what we call in the way we do it, it would be red herrings. It would something that took you to the left, or to the right. Just when you thought you knew who did it, all of a sudden the DNA proved that he was innocent.
Alan: 12:50 And that’s when we cut to commercial.
Henry: 12:52 And we hold you. You laugh, we cut to commercial, but ID has the longest length of tune of any network anywhere.
Alan: 13:01 Tune, meaning they stay tuned?
Henry: 13:02 People stay tuned for long periods of time than any other network. The reason is because those middles. We leave you waiting for more. So people actually wait for the other part after the commercial spot.
Alan: 13:15 That’s really interesting. You’ve analyzed it so thoroughly. I’m so impressed by that.
Henry: 13:23 Well, I have a team that stands for nothing else than for correcting me, half of the time. But the-
Alan: 13:30 Tell me about your team. Tell me how you interact with your team. Because one of the things that I’m really impressed with about you is you’re such a funny guy. You may be the only executive in the world who once wrote for Saturday Night Live.
Henry: 13:46 Very unsuccessfully, I might add, as they will attest. I had a specialty in dead Pope humor, which has come and gone.
Alan: 13:54 Wait, dead Pope humor.
Henry: 13:58 At the time I was-
Alan: 13:59 I would like to hear some of your rejected Pope jokes.
Henry: 14:02 I was writing freelance for talent there, and would submit literally, lines every now and then. Almost none of which were ever accepted. But it got me at least to go to a couple of dress rehearsals, and what have you. And to appreciate frankly, how talented those writers are over the years at SNL.
Alan: 14:20 They’re under a lot of pressure.
Henry: 14:23 In a week to produce a show that’s timely, and current, and sardonic, and smart as it is, is really a terrific exercise, I think in this day and age. I love the people that I work with, I really enjoy working with them. I think part of succeeding in any business, but especially perhaps in the one that we’re in, is good management, which is really, not to oversimplify it but it often comes down to frankly setting a good example. Being enthusiastic, having the energy, reflecting the empathy. Really, really rewarding success. It’s not that we haven’t had our failures. But I think sometimes rewarding success is undervalued, and understated.
Alan: 15:11 How do you go about that with words are money.
Henry: 15:16 Words are … we’ve run out of money about two years ago. So we’re down to words, a lot of great words. You laugh, but I’m not sure we’re getting the same reaction.
Alan: 15:29 Don’t worry, nobody will listen to this.
Henry: 15:32 Well, you know something, sometimes I don’t think words replace money, for sure in the marketplace. But very few people that I know wake up in the morning thinking about the money. I think they wake up thinking, “Is this going to be a fun day? Will it be interesting? Do I like the people I’m hanging out with? Will I be challenged? Will I be this, will I be that?” You come home, “Did I add something to it? I can’t wait for tomorrow. I’ve got a different idea, let’s spin it.”
So the enthusiasm has to be infectious. I certainly feel that way everyday. Not that it’s a game, but everyday you try to move the ball a little bit forward, and you try to share that with your team. Listen, I also recognize how much better they are in any number of ways. Whether it’s coming up with titles, saying, “No,” to projects I might have incorrectly said, “Yes,” to. Saying yes to the ones that you actually see. Developing the ones that we see, and making them better. Most of all, or additionally, marketing them, getting them out there, telling you the viewer that these are …
So all of those skills are … I have people who are better at them than me. I’m an editor, I’m not a writer. In a sense that I’ll look at their thoughts and say, “What if we did this?” Or, “What if we spun it that way?” Or, “Should it end?” And maybe sometimes just asking those questions, or minor suggestions, sometimes it actually improves the process. But it’s a very collective process. That to me is good management.
I think it’s a tremendously underrated skill, I think, in this day and age. To admit what you don’t know, and to have people around you, and to be supportive of them.
Alan: 17:15 I think in general, in life, and maybe in management too, people are reluctant to admit that they don’t know something. Or that somebody knows more about it, or has better insight into a problem than they do. We’re afraid somebody else is going to subdue us with their expertise.
Henry: 17:39 It takes … what is it? The good news is William Goldman always said, “Nobody knows anything about this business.”
Alan: 17:46 I was the proof in his book. He used as an example that nobody knows anything, the fact that one of my movies was successful.
Henry: 17:57 Perfect example.
Alan: 17:58 Thanks for bringing that up.
Henry: 18:01 He was a great fan of yours, I know. He was actually speaking to you.
Alan: 18:06 Get out of town.
Henry: 18:08 Definitely. But it’s always been somewhat inspirational to me to understand that no one knows anything. Because the good side, bad side of it is, probably no one knows anything better than you. So it should give you some confidence that your thoughts or suggestions are not completely out of line.
On the other hand, I think if you temper it with the experience of other people, and their thoughts, and their research, and the fact that these people are professionals, and in some cases are passionate about the content. Or have been doing it for a while. You put those two together, and there’s probably something there.
You’re right, I’m amazed at how much I don’t know. I have reached a point where I am completely honest about saying how much I … how do they get those little people in the box on television anyways?
Alan: 18:57 I once had a little kid about six years old look at me for a long time, and he said, “How did you get out of the television?”
Henry: 19:05 I’m with that kid.
Alan: 19:06 So you’re starting off on the right foot.
Henry: 19:11 I’m with that kid. Honestly, in the world of cable, and coaxial, and over the top. How do they get the signals down? I was in the car the other day with the radio, I don’t understand how the damn thing gets in the car, it works great.
Alan: 19:23 You mentioned confidence a second ago.
Henry: 19:25 Right.
Alan: 19:27 I imagine this gives this attitude that you have, that you just talked about. Gives confidence to people to feel free to express themselves with you. Do you ever find that there are people you have to help be more confident?
Henry: 19:44 Yes. Certainly when you go into a situation, and no one really knows … when I started at a Court TV, or a Hallmark, or an ID. And people didn’t know what to expect.
Alan: 19:58 Because you were new, and in charge.
Henry: 20:00 Because I was new, and they were there. I always made it a point, first of all, I’ve always believed, and reasonably correctly so that the people around me either knew more, because they had experience or had some feeling. So I always went in sort of saying fairly quickly, “The audition is over. How do we together bring this thing a little bit more forward, a little bit new?” I’ve always tried to give people the confidence that … in all my years of this, I don’t think I’ve “fired” more than five people in my entire career. People have left to go to other jobs, and for a variety of reasons and moved, and what have you. I always believed that people really know what they heck they’re doing. If you just redirect them a little bit, or if you ask them, or if you get their thinking, and what have you. Maybe you can improve it.
I think having people confident about what they’re doing enables them to do their best. My best friend is the one who brings out the best in me. You try to be a best “best” friend, you’ll get unbelievable results from people.
Alan: 21:18 That sounds very encouraging. You’re a much more encouraging person than I ever thought you were.
Henry: 21:23 Well you know something, I do it not for any noble reasons, but it works for me. I’m not saying-
Alan: 21:30 It feels good too, doesn’t?
Henry: 21:32 It all feels good, it is good, and what have you. But frankly I benefit from this.
Alan: 21:38 There’s the stereotype of the boss who says, “Do better, or you’re out of here.” That kind of punitive headline doesn’t sound like a good way to work. It doesn’t sound like you work that way at all.
Henry: 21:52 I definitely don’t work that way, because it just wouldn’t work for me. It’s not to say that … I’m sure there are corporations, and businesses, historically, and certainly today where you see that is the case. Where fear, perhaps, is a motivating factor.
For me, comfort and confidence is a motivating factor. Don’t get me wrong, this is all … it was said earlier about some of the more noble things, and important things, and inspiring things we can do. I really do … we can make a profit and make a difference at the same time. The question is, how do you get that balance right? That is not the hardest thing in the world to do. One way to do it is to instill your team with confidence.
But how do you do that when you have to make your voice heard amid the clutter we have now to be entertained informed and inspired? And how do you talk to several cultures at the same time? When we come back after this short break.
This is C+V and now back to my conversation with Henry Schleiff.
Alan: 22:37 You talked a little bit before about the way the audience has been fragmented. Maybe you didn’t mention that, anyway. The audience has been fragmented, and in some ways I think that’s been beneficial to your company, because you don’t have to be one of the three networks, you’re another network altogether.
Henry: 23:02 Well, in a world of fragmentation, which you’re exactly right. What we try to do is provide certainty, consistency. So that’s really the definition of a brand, and that’s what we’re selling. We’re selling a brand. You know that 24 hours a day, seven days a week throughout the year. No matter what time it is, you can turn on ID, and you will consistently get a story of true crime that is really fascinating in all respects.
It’s going to be not scripted, and it’s going to be true. And most likely it will end with a satisfying conclusion. That consistency is really, really important in a world that is so fractured. There’s so many choices out there. It’s so noisy that at least knowing that if you go to something like an ID, or a Food Network, eponymous, you’re going to get a story about food.
Alan: 23:57 This is branding, this is what branding is, right?
Henry: 24:01 That’s about branding. This also leads to the discussion actually of I think the underrating, or undervalue sometimes of marketing. How you tell … the content today, it used to be there was bad series, bad stories, and poorly produced, and good stuff that was great, and what have you. I find more, and more it’s just really interesting, and great stuff out there, all over the place. Whether it’s on Netflix, or HBO, or Showtime, or all of the world of linear cable.
The question is, how do you tell the viewer that this is something that you really want to watch? How do you get that word out there?
Alan: 24:40 So that’s marketing.
Henry: 24:41 That’s marketing.
Alan: 24:42 And what are your thoughts about that? How do you do that? How do you go about it? Because there is an awful lot of noise, and there are channels that people receive information on, and how do you choose what’s appropriate to what you’re selling?
Henry: 24:56 The first thing you have to recognize is that there’s no way, there’s no amount of money that you can throw at this problem, to get people’s attention. A movie is made today for $100 Million, they spend $50 Million on the marketing, and it’s only going to be in the theaters for two or three weeks. So you can’t pay $50 Million every week for your new series on television, or what have you.
What you have to do, I think, is be consistent, be smart, stand for something in this cluttered marketplace. Most of all, I think you have to recognize, like a lawyer that the issue is not so much good versus bad content. The issue is how do you get people’s attention? That’s hard, that really is the challenge. But if you think like that, then you start with, “Well, maybe a clever title will help break through? Maybe there’s stuff that we can do on our own air, “interstitial”.” So how do we promote that? We’ve got a really interesting, and different series with new information coming up on ID.
So we do that on our own. The best place to promote your programming is on your own network. We have proven, actually … we have in fact, this Saturday, two days from now, we’re going to have IDCon in New York. It’s like Comicon. In one minute we sell out 500 seats-
Alan: 26:17 What happens at IDCon?
Henry: 26:18 We have our talent there, we have panels that talk about crime, we have-
Alan: 26:22 It’s like the Star Trek people at the openings of supermarkets.
Henry: 26:26 Exactly right. We get literally 10,000 people on a waiting list to get in.
Alan: 26:32 Oh my God. You have a woman show up, a wife with a knife?
Henry: 26:36 Hopefully.
Alan: 26:37 Is it the host, or the criminals?
Henry: 26:39 On both sides. That’s why it’s so crowded.
Alan: 26:45 And the audience is looking for tips.
Henry: 26:48 Exactly. The people in the back in stripes are probably the ones we got to be careful of. I hadn’t thought of that, yeah.
Alan: 26:59 That’s been a way that you’ve carved out … wait a minute, let me just pause for a second. It’s something that I really wanted to ask you about … oh, I know what I wanted to ask you. This fragmentation of the audience has allowed for specific programming, like what you’ve just described.
Henry: 27:23 Correct.
Alan: 27:25 Do you think it’s also fragmented … the supply of differing points of view? I’m talking in a cultural sense now. Because we can listen to something so specifically tuned to our wants, to our regular way of thinking, that we’re liable to run the risk of totally ignoring opposing points of view.
Where you’re in a meeting, you’ve described to me, how you want to hear opposing points of view. Yet, as entertainment consumers and information consumers, we’re tending apparently less and less to hear the opposing point of view.
Henry: 28:09 Well, I think you make a really good point about the different forms of listening, if you will. And you’ve spoken before in this series about the sacred value, if you will, in communication, of listening.
To me at least I think, there’s two kinds of listening, I think. For just purposes for my own understanding, I kind of call it active, or passive listening. Active listening is what most of us do in conversation I think, or in a meeting, or what have you. Because when you’re speaking, I’m kind of thinking about what I’m going to say in response. I’m trying to fashion a rebuttal, or I agree vehemently with you, or I disagree in how I’m going to. But I’m thinking about my response to you, which is somewhat active.
On the other hand, in a podcast, if you will, as a listener, which I think is so helpful is that you are, by definition more passively listening to it. You’re really listening to the information because no one is going to grab you through that radio and say, “Well, what do you think?” So you have the comfort, the confidence of saying, “Wait a second, this is cool.” I can sit here and actually listen, and benefit and learn, or be entertained by this.
Alan: 29:24 You don’t have to prepare a rebuttal.
Henry: 29:26 I don’t have to prepare a rebuttal. So this is truly entertaining. I think it’s important to understand those two different, dramatically different kinds of listening.
Alan: 29:35 But, if you’re only listening to what you agree with, or to one kind of entertainment and not … you’re listening to, you’re watching hockey-
Henry: 29:46 I’m listening to you, I’m ready to rebut what you’re saying.
Alan: 29:46 Yeah, go ahead.
Henry: 29:50 It’s not only listening to what you agree with. No, it’s in fact … especially in this world of the political environment that we’re in, half of what you’re listening to, you can’t wait to say, “That’s the craziest. That’s the stupidest, that’s the most dishonest thing I’ve ever heard.”
Alan: 30:06 Right, no matter which side you’re on. You have a set of facts that you value, that rebuts what you’re hearing from-
Henry: 30:14 Exactly right.
Alan: 30:15 Didn’t we use to get a different mix of points of view? Maybe that’s a mistake at ID, and maybe we’re looking at the past with rosy glasses.
Henry: 30:27 I mean, I think right now it’s become so cacophonous out there, it’s so noisy out there, that in a strange way, with all of the ability to listen to different points of view, we feel disconnected. I think technology today, which you would think by virtue of the internet, and what have you, and whether your ability to Tweet, and communicate so quickly and effectively, has disconnected us, I think.
So, when you can sit, and enjoy something either in a theater, or in a collective atmosphere at home with your family, it’s refreshing, it’s different. We as a society … I don’t think both politically, and in a variety of other ways, certainly communication wise have ever been more than disconnected.
Alan: 31:17 We’ve never been more disconnected that we are now.
Henry: 31:20 Yeah.
Alan: 31:21 What do you think we can do about that? Here we have an enormously complex delivery system of information, and entertainment. What can those of us who are in the field do to be more responsible, more helpful in how we deliver those things?
Henry: 31:42 I think we have to be careful. I think we have to understand now that everybody has left the green room, and everybody has a show, really.
Alan: 31:52 You know, there are 600,000 podcasts?
Henry: 31:55 Are there really?
Alan: 31:56 Yeah.
Henry: 31:56 You’re kidding me. I’m amazed at how fast that whole industry has evolved. Well, just think about when you say podcast, the ability with people to Tweet, and have followers, or on Facebook, everybody has some form now of displaying their Instagram pictures.
Alan: 32:12 Well, Facebook gives everybody a publication. Everybody has a front page on the internet.
Henry: 32:18 Okay, so now that everybody is in the entertainment, or information business, which is never been the case before. We only had access to a film with you in it. Now we make home films, we do whatever. I think we have to ultimately understand, and it’s not an easy answer. But we have to understand what that means to us. Maybe we have to be a little bit respectful of the messages coming in, and the messages that we send out. This is all new to us. We are a generation that is only 15, 20 years into the benefits, and maybe detriments of [crosstalk 00:32:55].
Alan: 32:55 Or dangers in any case.
Henry: 32:56 Absolutely.

Alan: 32:59 Let me ask you about your own personal habits.
Henry: 33:01 Oh, not that. Great.
Alan: 33:03 I think the world would really like to know.
Henry: 33:05 I plead the fifth right there. So hard to get my lawyer into this little room. Let me just start by saying I didn’t do whatever you’re going to say.
Alan: 33:17 I want to know, the entertainment has changed in a very interesting way. So I want to know, do you binge?
Henry: 33:24 No. I’m a mini binger.
Alan: 33:28 So what do you mean?
Henry: 33:30 I can only last for many two or three hours or so.
Alan: 33:33 You have such a short attention span.
Henry: 33:34 Yes, exactly.
Alan: 33:35 I could go 17, 18 hours.
Henry: 33:38 No, no. I’m actually on a Netflix, or what have you or so … there’s just such extraordinary programming out there that you do really want to see what’s on.
Alan: 33:47 It’s really good. I mean, they talk about golden ages. You almost can’t fail to find something really interesting.
Henry: 33:55 As I said, that’s both the good news and the bad news here. You can find … whatever your passion may be, if it’s true crime, or if it’s history, or if it’s adventure, or if it’s a lifestyle. You can’t fail … or just fundamentally great story telling that’s scripted or unscripted. There’s several places you can go for it. The question really is how do you keep up? How do you know one from the other? It’s a word of mouth business to some extent. How many times have we been out where you’ve said, “Did you see this series?” You end up writing it down and-
Alan: 34:28 You know, never in my life until now have I had the experience regularly of friends my age, a table full of adults at dinner trading ideas on what to binge on. Everybody’s curious, give me, “What’s the name of that? Where do I get it?” It’s such a common experience now to … in the 50s they said, “Have you read any books lately?” Then in 60s and 70s they said, “Have you seen any good movies lately?” Now they say, “What are you binging on?”
Henry: 35:06 Listen, there’s arguments both ways about the water cooler benefits of knowing that that next episode is going to come next week. Game Of Thrones proves that-
Alan: 35:15 But the whole idea of binging is you don’t have to wait until next week.
Henry: 35:19 I understand that, that’s a whole other way of looking at things. Listen, there’s interest in both ways of doing it. I certainly understand the binging for sure.
Alan: 35:29 Well, let me give you a $1 Million idea here. You don’t have to pay me in cash.
Henry: 35:33 Yes, good. I like this. Can I just give you praise?
Alan: 35:37 I’m onto that already.
Henry: 35:39 So you’ve really done a great job here. Give me this idea, I’m ready.
Alan: 35:42 Why don’t you do a bingable series in your crime thing?
Henry: 35:46 Well we actually have a variety of ways you can watch ID. ID go, for example, on your phone or your iPad, what have you. You can download 20 episodes of a series, so you can-
Alan: 35:58 Yeah, but do I wonder what’s going to happen next? I’m compelled to watch the next episode because of that?
Henry: 36:05 That’s interesting, our audience, we’ve toyed with an audience-
Alan: 36:09 I’m about to make this a $2 Million idea.
Henry: 36:10 No, no, no. Just before I fire you, I want you to understand why, you being number six.
Alan: 36:21 What are the [inaudible 00:36:23]?
Henry: 36:23 Our audience is not an audience that loves the idea of a soap opera series, where one is going to lead to another. They like self contained stories.
Alan: 36:33 Oh, they like that resolution at the end too much.
Henry: 36:36 They close in one hour. Absolutely. And we’ve done a lot of research on this. At most, an audience can, in our case, if they can follow a particular important trial, or a case that’s absolutely iconic. Whether it’s an O.J. or a JonBenet, or the Menendez. Some of these iconic, Manson, you can follow for three or four hours, because there’s just so much history and stories.
Alan: 37:01 You break the story up into segments.
Henry: 37:02 Exactly. But in most cases our audience wants a story that is told in basically 60 Minutes.
Alan: 37:09 That’s interesting. What is it about your audience that’s different from the people who are flooding to bingable stories? That’s very interesting. Have you seen any difference among those segments?
Henry: 37:19 No, I think Certs is a candy, and a breath mint. I think people-
Alan: 37:30 More flavor, less filling.
Henry: 37:31 Exactly.
Alan: 37:32 We can speak in commercials here.
Henry: 37:33 I don’t think you have to distinguish … We can speak in commercials is exactly right. I don’t know where we are in the Alka Seltzer but I think-
Alan: 37:41 Well, I ate the whole thing.
Henry: 37:43 I can’t believe it.
Alan: 37:47 I wonder if we’re the only two people laughing right now?
Henry: 37:50 Two questions went off the road somewhere, I know that.
Alan: 37:53 Yeah, to get away.
Henry: 37:53 Yeah, exactly. And if it’s a crime, we’ll cover it, great. Where were you on …

Alan: 37:59 You’re almost the only person who brought notes of your own. What have I not asked you that you wished I asked you?
Henry: 38:14 What underlies all of I think, to some extent, great binge viewing, great storytelling, true crime, or scripted. Part of it, I think, is the whole question of creativity.
Alan: 38:31 What underlies all of these kinds of storytelling?
Henry: 38:35 Exactly. Where is the creative? Where is the imagination?
Alan: 38:40 So when you say creative is essential, are you saying that the old technique of copying what’s successful is maybe not the way to go. Fred Allen said the serious form of flattery is television.
Henry: 38:57 That’s funny. A riff off the invitation. Listen, somebody else said originality is simply the art of hiding your sources. So all the variations on that theme. In this world today, where I think the break out, break out ideas, whether they be in science, of which you’ve spent a good part of your life. Or in entertainment, where you spent another part of your life. If there’s a common denominator between those two. The breakout, the thing that moves something forward is something that comes out of completely left field. That is completely iconoclastic.
I’m fascinated by that, where that creativity comes in-
Alan: 39:38 So how do you generate it? I mean, obviously you’re in this spot where you’ve got these people around you who could come up with ideas. How do you generate their creativity? How do you make it more active?
Henry: 39:52 I wish there was a formula. I wish there was something that I could say to you, “Well, we do it this way, and that’s the way.” The answer is, I don’t think there is any one way. I think part of it may be to provide an environment. We’re going back to where people feel confident in saying, “This may be a crazy idea, but … ” I love that, that’s a great opening.
We may not be able to do this, but-
Alan: 40:16 People are discouraged from saying that in order to be more effective in meetings. Especially women are advised not to say, “I may be wrong, but … ” Or, “This may be a crazy idea.” It seems like everybody ought to be able to say that.
Henry: 40:33 One of … I’ve had a lot of bosses over the years, and one of the people that I worked with way back when. Without getting into his name in the specifics, was he was really really smart in a variety of ways. But knew nothing when he came in, and took over the company. But he had enough self confidence in himself to ask very fundamental questions. He owned the company, basically.
Very wealthy guy, became wealthier, but took over the company. But he had this temerity to ask basic questions. Why do people advertise on television? And do people actually watch ads? You would give the given wisdom as an answer. Then he would ask Columbo another question that would press you a little bit further. Until you finally begin to question the given wisdom.
That I think is something that we all have to do. We look at fundamentals, and sometimes maybe the answer or the variation is right there in front of us, but I think the big discoveries perhaps, in science, or the big change in something in entertainment is sometimes something that may be near us, but we just haven’t looked at in a way that actually takes advantage of it.
Alan: 41:53 I think that’s so important. Ignorance is undervalued.
Henry: 41:58 Yes.
Alan: 41:59 Ignorance is really good if it’s combined with curiosity.
Henry: 42:04 Einstein, of all people said, “Imagination is more important than knowledge.” Einstein.
Alan: 42:12 I think he probably meant it’s good to have some knowledge.
Henry: 42:15 I think he was probably talking about his expense reports. Whatever got him there, it certainly worked.
Alan: 42:26 The thing is, one of the ways I interpret that saying of his, is that it’s not enough to have knowledge. If you have knowledge, and then think of novel ways to use that knowledge, to put some part of your knowledge together with another part of your knowledge, that nobody ever thought of before, that’s creativity.
Henry: 42:47 I worked for another person … again, people that I have so benefited … this was a person, Dennis Gillespie, who passed away many years ago. But he was the head of marketing at Viacom. All he would do is look at things in an upside down way. If you thought it was bad news, he would say, “This is great news, because … ” it’s almost like a form of entertainment when you do spontaneous-
Alan: 43:17 Improv.
Henry: 43:18 It’s like improv when you have the word and.
Alan: 43:18 Yes and.
Henry: 43:21 Yes and. Except his yes and is “This is good news because … ” he would look at something, and we would turn it it’s head. Out of that became either a different marketing plan, or something really creative. I think that’s part of the ongoing fun in this business. Is to look at what you do, and see if there’s a novel way of doing it. Maybe it starts with a title, maybe it starts with doing a show, which we’ve done completely backwards. Redrum, one of our titles, which is murder spelled backwards. We did the whole crime backwards actually.
Alan: 43:55 You did, how did that work?
Henry: 43:56 It really confused the hell out of people.
Alan: 43:58 You started with the sentencing?
Henry: 44:01 Yeah, with the person laying on the floor and then all of the sudden the glass behind it being broken, which was the guy actually going into the door and what have you. It worked, in a very strange way. The commercials were terrific for it.
Alan: 44:14 Did you play them backwards too?
Henry: 44:18 Yeah, so we had people actually not buy.
Alan: 44:22 This has been a wonderful conversation, and is confirmed for me why I like you so much. You make me laugh, and you make me think. Those are two things that I think should be done at the same time. I do that with you.
Henry: 44:37 I’ll return the favor. We’ve known each other for many, many, many years. It’s not only … there’s another great quote, which I always like and it was, WH Auden “among the people I respect or admire, there’s no common denominator. But among the people I love, there is, they make me laugh.”
Alan: 44:55 Yeah, I love that. I first read that in a talk you gave. WH Auden Center.
Henry: 45:01 I loved that quote. It’s so pertinent here, because you over the years have not only made people laugh, but you’ve informed them in so many ways. I look at the relevance, even today of something like MASH, which was not about the Korean War, it was about life’s lessons. I look at that some of the speeches that you did in West Wing that are so relevant today. One other note I would say is in this whole business, I want to underscore the importance actually, and I’ve said this before, of communication in all forms.
Whether it’s in entertainment. Whether you are writing in any … whether it’s for a podcast. Whether it is old form newspapers, or whether it is digital. The ability to communicate, I think in this world is to communicate effectively. Is so important, is so important. I say it as a character a little bit. It’s more important than being a brain surgeon. And I do that to get a rise, because really how many people can a brain surgeon save in a career? 100, 500, 5000? But in communication, entertainment, print, digital. You can affect the lives. You can influence millions of people. You can inform, you can inspire people around the world, millions of people. What greater career could you possibly have than something in some form of communications?
I think a little bit of what you’re doing in enabling people to “Tell a story more effectively, more dramatically, more clearly.” Is really, really important.
Alan: 46:51 Well, one of the great things that I get to do on this show is to talk to people like you who are expert at it, and get more insight into it. And thank you for that too.
Before you go though, as I’m sure you know, we ask our guests to answer seven quick questions.
Henry: 47:06 Oh great.
Alan: 47:06 With seven quick answers. They’re not intrusive. They’re a little bit about communication and relating. So here’s the first question, what do you wish you really understood?
Henry: 47:22 Why my dog looks at me the way he does often times. Even after I’ve given him the first biscuit.
Alan: 47:29 That was good enough.
Henry: 47:34 Okay, that’s a start right there.
Alan: 47:37 What do you wish other people understood about you?
Henry: 47:42 I’m fairly transparent, so I think hopefully people understand that I’m trying to help them, and help them, help me.
Alan: 47:56 What’s the strangest question anyone’s every asked you?
Henry: 47:59 The first two of this.
Alan: 48:04 All right. How do you stop a compulsive talker?
Henry: 48:12 How do you stop a comp-
Alan: 48:13 Yeah, how do you do it?
Henry: 48:15 Oh, that’s great. Yeah, that’s a great question. I don’t know if you stop them, but you just generally repeat the last thing they say every now and then. It’s like trying to put a yellow barrel on a shark, I think. It slows them down.
Alan: 48:33 And activity I’ve never engaged in myself.
Henry: 48:36 In Jaws I think.
Alan: 48:39 Is there anyone for whom you just can’t feel empathy? Considering that empathy is not compassion, but trying to see their point of view. Is there anyone for whom you can’t be bothered? You don’t have to name names.
Henry: 48:54 The sad thing is, I think you either have empathy, or you don’t and it’s hard to shut it off. So there’s nobody for whom I would shut off the empathy. There’s a ton of people, especially in this political environment that I disagree with, for sure. But it’s not that I don’t understand, or feel where they’re coming from.
Alan: 49:15 Okay. How do you like to deliver bad news? In person, on the phone, or by carrier pigeon?
Henry: 49:22 Largely through someone else, wherever possible.
Alan: 49:30 And like is the important word here. Everybody knows you’re supposed to do it in person.
Henry: 49:36 I don’t like to deliver it, but I guess you start with the cat’s on the roof.
Alan: 49:43 Right. Great joke. We’ll explain that in another podcast. What, if anything, would make you end a friendship? And be careful here, because we’re friends.
Henry: 49:56 I guess of course if they had those pictures.
Alan: 50:02 Would that do it?
Henry: 50:06 That would definitely do it.
Alan: 50:08 I just want you to know I’m going up on Twitter with one of them tomorrow.
Henry: 50:12 Uh oh. End of friendship.
Alan: 50:14 Henry, thank you, this has been so much fun.
Henry: 50:15 Thank you so much Alan, this was fun, and really informative. Thank you, great questions.
Alan: 50:20 Thank you.
Henry Schleiff’s had a career as a writer, producer, and media executive and he’s even written material for Saturday night Live. Through it all, Henry has always focused on making an impact, both with his story-telling and with the people who work with him. And as far as I can tell he has a lot of fun doing it.