Schlepping to Moguldom
September 5, 2004
By ANDREW ROSS SORKIN
HAIM SABAN, one of the nation's richest and most improbable
media magnates, was slouched in a leather seat aboard his
Gulfstream jet during a trip from Los Angeles to New York
this spring, rattling on about his support for Israel.
After devouring a bagel covered in lox, he leaned forward
and launched into his favorite story from the Democratic
"Did I tell you what Howard Dean told me?" he asked,
knowing full well that he had not, at least not yet today.
"Do you know how he tells me that he is going to support
Israel?" he recounted, with a look of incredulity. "He
tells me, 'Don't you know my wife is Jewish?' "
Mr. Saban, 59, let out a sharp laugh, pausing for effect,
before delivering his punch line. "Do you know what I told
him? I said, 'Governor, the fact that your wife is Jewish
is your problem.' "
A self-described "cartoon schlepper," Mr. Saban became a
billionaire by turning the Mighty Morphin Power Rangers
into a global franchise that he merged with Rupert
Murdoch's News Corporation and, in 2001, sold to the Walt
Disney Company for $5.3 billion. He has since emerged as
perhaps the most politically connected mogul in Hollywood,
throwing his weight and money around Washington and,
increasingly, the world, trying to influence all things
"I'm a one-issue guy and my issue is Israel," he said in
his first extensive interview in years.
To that end, he has become one of the largest individual
donors in the country to the Democratic Party and its
candidates, giving millions over the past decade - $7
million in just one donation to the Democratic National
Committee in 2002. He recently had Senator John Kerry over
to his chateau-style home in Beverly Hills. ("We played
guitar and kibitzed," he said.) He regularly spends hours
at a time on the phone with Ariel Sharon, the Israeli prime
minister. He vacations with Bill Clinton.
At the same time, Mr. Saban has been bidding - or at least
kicking the tires - on media properties around the world as
he looks to expand his empire and, by extension, his
But what really has people talking in Hollywood and
Washington is his most ambitious project yet: he is the
proud owner of the largest television broadcaster in
Germany. "I know, I know. I get the irony," he said with a
A year ago, Mr. Saban beat out his one-time partner, Mr.
Murdoch, and many other media titans to buy the
broadcaster, ProSiebenSat.1 Media, putting him in control
of a company that owns the rough equivalent of CBS, ABC,
TBS and Nickelodeon.
"That level of ownership would never be allowed in the
U.S.," he acknowledged. "It would be too much
Since taking over the broadcaster, he has turned it around
- cutting costs and sending it American hits like "The OC,"
a Fox Network series about teenage tribulations, and
"Nip/Tuck," a drama centered in a plastic surgery clinic.
Not only is the company making money, but Mr. Saban may
finally be shaking a reputation that has long dogged him:
that he has gone further on luck than talent.
"It's easy to be jealous of someone like Haim," said Peter
Chernin, president and chief executive of the News
Corporation. "But I think the Germany situation has the
potential to be not just a financial score but serve as the
cornerstone of something bigger."
That, Mr. Saban readily acknowledged, is the plan. As one
of the richest people in Hollywood, he hears about possible
deals constantly. He is toying with the idea of buying The
Jerusalem Post from Hollinger International, which has been
canvassing for buyers. "If they ever come to earth with the
price, I would be interested in it," he said.
He has also stirred controversy in Britain, where he
publicly expressed interest in buying ITV, the country's
biggest commercial network, while accusing its competitors,
BBC News and Sky News, the news arm of the pay-TV provider
British Sky Broadcasting, of pro-Arab coverage.
Of course, not every deal has panned out. Last year, he
joined a consortium led by Edgar Bronfman Jr. that was
bidding on Warner Music, only to drop out at the 11th hour,
worried that the group was overpaying. Now that Warner
Music is on an upswing, it looks as if he may have missed
an opportunity. But Mr. Saban says he has moved on.
"I don't even think about it," he said.
Mr. Saban said he
had other deals up his sleeve, but he refused to tip his
hand. You can count on him to pursue them tirelessly. "I
don't play golf and I don't collect stamps,'' he said. "I
don't ride horses. I don't go mountain hiking, I don't go
star gazing. I don't do any of that."
Don't bother asking him what his hobby is. "I have none.
Zero. It's my family and work."
Mr. Saban's path to moguldom has certainly been unusual. He
was born in Egypt but fled to Tel Aviv with his parents,
his brother and his grandmother after the 1956 Suez War.
Struggling to get by, the family lived in a one-room
apartment and shared a bathroom, he recalled, "with a
hooker and a pimp."
As a teenager, he took up the bass guitar and began
managing bands and promoting concerts. But his business was
wiped out by the 1973 Yom Kippur War and he decided to move
to Paris with his business partner, Shuki Levy.
HIS big break came soon after that. While vacationing in
Tel Aviv, he got a call from a producer in Paris who wanted
one of Mr. Saban's clients, Noam Kaniel, a child singer, to
record the theme song for a cartoon called "Goldorak,"
which was wildly popular in France in the 70's. So he flew
back to France and headed to the studio.
"It was just one of the worst songs I ever heard in my
life," he recalled. "But we schlepped all the way there so
I said, 'Let's do it so we can get out of here and get back
to the pool at the Sheraton in Tel Aviv.' " About a month
later, Mr. Saban got a copy of the master and a bill for
$2,000 from the producer.
"I said: 'I do you a favor and you want $2,000. I don't
want the master,' '' he remembered. "So now I'm schlepping
around to record companies looking for someone to give me a
licensing deal and pay me an advance of $2,000. But the
song is so awful nobody wants to give it to me, nobody. So
I find this guy at CBS just out of school who is willing to
just ship a few hundred copies."
When "Goldorak" became hugely successful, its theme song
started selling, and those few hundred copies soon turned
into 3.5 million.
During that process, he had his eureka moment. Because he
owned the master recording for the TV program, he collected
all of the profit. "I found out on a TV deal all the money
came to me, not to the record company,'' he said. "On a
licensing deal you only get 20 percent. I was swimming in
money. I didn't know what to do with myself. Everything
went whoosh from there."
He and his partner started releasing music soundtracks in
France for television shows like "Dallas" and "Knots
Landing." In late 1983, Mr. Saban moved to Los Angeles and
began writing and producing cartoon soundtracks, though not
always with much success.
"When I moved to this country in 1983, you can rest assured
that they weren't waiting in lines to meet me and see me
and make deals with me," he said. "Did I wait for hours for
a cartoon producer to see me so I could play him some of
our music and after hours his assistant would come out and
say, 'Well, he won't be able to see you today'? Yes."
Soon, however, he was on a roll. He wrote the theme song
for the cartoon series that eventually became the Disney
movie "Inspector Gadget," for example, and then bought the
television rights to the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles from
the creators of the comic book characters. The television
program became an overnight sensation.
Then, in 1985, on a business trip to Tokyo, he hit gold in
a room at the Imperial Hotel. "They have all these crazy
game shows on and I didn't understand anything and then
this thing came on," he said, referring to a children's
cartoon show known as "Dinosaur Task Force Zyuranger."
"I said: 'Oh my God. Oh my God.' It was fascinating. I
thought it was magical. It was incredible."
For half a million dollars - "which is not nothing," he
noted - he bought the rights to broadcast the program
outside of Asia. After eight years of begging and pleading,
he finally persuaded the News Corporation's Fox Network to
broadcast the show, renamed "The Mighty Morphin Power
Rangers," in the summer of 1993. It was an instant hit.
With the hottest children's show in the world on his hands,
Mr. Saban formed a joint venture with Fox in 1996. It
turned out to be a shrewd move. The next year, the venture
acquired the Family Channel from its founder, Pat
Robertson, for $1.9 billion and turned it into the Fox
Family Channel. Four years later, Michael D. Eisner, the
Disney chief executive, negotiated a deal to buy the
channel for Disney for $5.3 billion.
THE deal is considered one of Mr. Eisner's worst, one that
he has acknowledged as a drag on his company. But Mr. Saban
walked away with some $2 billion for himself. "People say
they overpaid,'' Mr. Saban said. "Beauty is in the eye of
the beholder. I will be very honest with you and this may
sound somewhat arrogant - I will tell you that I ended up
with about a half-billion less than what I thought I could
have gotten for those assets."
In any event, some of the proceeds from that sale helped to
underwrite Mr. Saban's relatively newfound passion:
He said he caught the political bug in the mid-1990's, when
he felt that support for Israel was slipping in the United
States. He and his wife, Cheryl (who, by the way, is not
Jewish), slept in the White House several times during
President Clinton's two terms. And Mr. Saban has remained
close to the former president.
"Haim Saban has been a very good friend, supporter and
adviser to me," Mr. Clinton said in an e-mail message. "I
am grateful for his commitment to Israel, to a just and
lasting peace in the Middle East and to my foundation's
work, particularly on reconciliation issues."
Mr. Clinton might have added that he is also grateful for
Mr. Saban's commitment to the Democratic Party, including
his $7 million donation two years ago, the largest
individual donation in its history.
While Mr. Saban is a vocal opponent of President Bush - "I
think Bush is just messing it up every day more" - he
supports some of Mr. Bush's policies. "On the issues of
security and terrorism I am a total hawk," he said. "I'm a
Democrat for the reinforcement of the Patriot Act. It's not
strong enough. The A.C.L.U. can eat their heart out, but
they are living in the 1970's. We should all have ID's. You
betcha. What do you have to hide? Some friends of mine on
the left side think I'm crazy."
Why is he so supportive of Israel? "I hate quoting Tom
DeLay, I really do," Mr. Saban said. "If you're going to
quote me quoting Tom DeLay, say I hate quoting him." He
continued, apparently quoting Mr. DeLay, the House
Republican leader: "He said: 'It is the right thing for us
to do to be supportive of Israel. The reasons go back to
the beginning of time.' "
Mr. Saban's views on the matter are straightforward. He is
a tireless cheerleader for Israel. But when it comes to
conflict there, his views are hardly sanguine. "I'm going
to make a very controversial statement and I hope to God
that I am proven totally wrong: I think that any resolution
will have to go both on the Palestinian side and Israeli
side to some form of civil war. It's not going to be
without spilling blood."
In 2002, he pledged $13 million to start a research
organization at the Brookings Institution called the Saban
Center for Middle East Policy. ("I've heard from leaders on
both sides of the aisle in the United States and leaders in
Europe about what Sharon shouldn't do," he said. "I've
haven't heard one educated suggestion about what he should
do.") Mr. Saban spends hours every week drumming up support
for a variety of charitable causes and, especially, for
Israel, sponsoring lunches and dinners at his home and
around the country to raise money for candidates who he
believes will support his cause. "He has no hesitation to
bang on your door for a cause he believes in," said Ron
Meyer, president of Universal Studios, who called Mr. Saban
one of the few guys "who puts his money where his mouth
In a faxed letter, Mr. Sharon said of Mr. Saban: "To me he
will always be a dear personal friend. Haim Saban is a
great American citizen and a man who always stood by Israel
and the Jewish people in times of need. His contribution to
strengthening ties between Israel and American political
leaders from all parties has been quite remarkable and
So how did Mr. Saban wind up putting so much of his money
In 2002, Leo Kirch's empire, KirchMedia, the largest media
company in Europe, went bankrupt. Flush with cash from the
sale of Fox Family to Disney, Mr. Saban was scouring for
deals and sensed an opportunity. "These kind of assets
people don't go around selling," he said. "At a normal time
we wouldn't have had a prayer in hell."
BY his own account, the timing was perfect. "There was a
very small window of opportunity where every single studio
had its own issues," he said, and his rivals, thus
distracted, were not in a good position to bid against him.
Mr. Murdoch never had his heart in the auction because he
was working on his deal for DirecTV. Time Warner was still
struggling with its acquisition of AOL. Viacom could not
get enthusiastic about the deal. And Disney was still
struggling with the purchase of Fox Family, renamed ABC
"Our biggest advantage was that we had the cash but no
business," Mr. Saban said. "These assets really should have
been bought by one of the majors as an outlet for their
programming in Europe." Indeed, he is now among the biggest
single buyers of Hollywood programming outside of the
In Germany, foreign entrepreneurs like John C. Malone,
chief executive of the Liberty Media Group, have failed in
efforts to buy assets, perhaps because their cavalier
attitude created problems with regulators. Mr. Saban
sweet-talked them. He also used some of his political
influence, asking the American ambassador to put in a good
word for him.
Mr. Saban has not been shy about calling on his political
friends to help sell advertising, too. This year, he
invited Germany's most prominent advertising executives to
his home in Los Angeles for dinner with Mr. Clinton. The
executives, he said, were stunned.
"These people never saw Leo Kirch in their life," Mr. Saban
said. "They never saw him. And now the new owner all of a
sudden has them in his home with Bill Clinton speaking to
Mr. Saban remembers precisely where he was when he clinched
the deal for ProSiebenSat.1: on his cellphone, as he was
standing in the middle of the former concentration camp at
Dachau, where he and his family had gone to visit. "I found
it kind of interesting, to say the least, that the timing
and the geography all came together the way they did," he
Investing in Germany was an easier decision for him than
some people might imagine, he said. "I'm not suggesting we
ignore what happened in Germany 50 years ago," he said,
"but I am suggesting that we don't allow it to keep us from
going into the future."
He added that the German government had been very
supportive of him, but not because of his history. "There
have been all kinds of theories because of the fact that
I'm an Israeli-American and the like,'' he said. "I don't
think so. I think it's a pure economic issue."
Well, maybe not all economics. Haim Saban "is not like one
of the guys just assembling trophy properties," said Steven
Rattner, the managing director of the Quadrangle Group, an
investment firm that backed Mr. Saban in ProSiebenSat.1.
"He'd rather be considered a mogul in Germany than here,''
Mr. Rattner said. "He thinks Germany is critical to