“I realized that there wasn’t going to be a pathway for me. I was going to have to find my own way.”
Kay Koplovitz, founder of USA Network and Syfy (formerly Sci-Fi Channel) and currently the chairman and co-founder of Springboard Enterprises; excerpted from an interview with the National Museum of American History, May 23, 2017.
On growing up in Wisconsin
Growing up in Wisconsin, I had a really great childhood. I have an older sister and a younger brother, and we lived primarily along Lake Michigan in South Milwaukee, Wisconsin. My parents wanted us to be independent, so we made a lot of decisions on our own early on in our lives, and sometimes we had to suffer the consequences. Of course my parents wouldn’t let us do something that would be harmful to ourselves, but they taught us to make decisions at a very young age. When I was in kindergarten, for example, my family moved from Cudahy to South Milwaukee. I wanted to graduate with my kindergarten class, so I told my dad that I would only move if he raised my allowance so I could take the bus back to Cudahy. A lot of parents wouldn’t let their five-year-old do that, but my parents thought it was okay. Every day I’d walk four blocks to the public bus stop and take the bus to Cudahy. I was happy to do it, and I got to graduate with my kindergarten class. I think this says a lot about my parents. They definitely raised us to be independent thinkers and to follow our own instincts and our dreams.
On starting out in the television industry
I graduated valedictorian from my high school and then went to the University of Wisconsin on a small scholarship. I had to work my way through college and had a number of different jobs. I was a waitress, which back then was the most lucrative at $2.25 an hour plus tips, but I also produced television at WHA, an educational station in Madison, Wisconsin. I applied for an internship at WTMJ, which is an NBC affiliate and the largest market in Wisconsin. There were 250 applicants and only 12 of us were invited to the final luncheon where the station was going to decide who would get the internship. At the luncheon, I began talking with the station manager about the statements they made at the end of programs that “this program does not reflect the opinion of the station.” I challenged why stations hid behind these kind of statements. I came home and told my mom, “I will not get that internship.” But maybe they liked somebody who had a little bit of spunk, because I did get it.
I produced a weekly series about the Green Bay Packers; that was a great deal of fun. Here I was producing at 20 years old and people thought, She’s reached the pinnacle of her career. They just didn’t see women producing at that point in time, and I realized that they created limitations when they looked at me. I didn’t want to be the station manager or the president of the Milwaukee Journal, the paper that owned the station. I wanted to be the president of NBC. But they didn’t see that. So the internship was good for me. I realized that there wasn’t going to be a pathway for me. I was going to have to find my own way.
On realizing the potential of satellites
Between my junior and senior year at the University of Wisconsin, I decided to go to Europe for a month with my backpack and $5 a day. I was in London, and I happened to see this poster for a lecture on geosynchronous orbiting satellites. As a kid I was really impressed with Sputnik, and I always had a curiosity about space. So I went into this lecture and listened to a gentleman talk about the power of geosynchronous orbiting satellites at 22,300 miles above Earth that appeared to be in stationary orbit. This was during the Cold War, when communism was still a big issue. And we had the Berlin Wall and the Great Wall of China. And I thought, Wow, these satellites are going to let us communicate behind those walls. Wouldn’t that be powerful! I credit Arthur C. Clarke with changing the course of not only television history but the course of my career, because I left there with an idea to use these satellites for television transmission. And that idea would never let me go. That was really a pivotal moment for me.
“September 30, 1975, was the night that changed the course of television history”
I worked in the satellite business, I worked in the television business, and I worked in the cable business to prepare myself to be in the right place at the right time over the next seven to eight years. September 30, 1975, was the night that changed the course of television history. HBO and the UA Columbia Cable Systems brought the live signal of The Thrilla in Manila 95,000 miles around the globe and showed it live in Vero Beach, Florida. The industry was trying to prove that these satellites could be used for commercial purposes, and that was my breakout point. Bob Rosencrans, whom my husband and I both worked for at UA Columbia, owned the system in Vero Beach, Florida. And he said to me, “Tonight, Kay, your dream comes true.” And it was true. That was really the night that launched the cable industry in a profound way. Before that time, tapes would be sent around to various cable systems with no efficient way to get to cable systems with a signal. Cable wasn’t going to grow, unless it could access its own proprietary programming. That really changed the prospects for television, and cable television started to come into its own as satellite dishes were installed around the country.
“People love sports, and the sports are played every night, so why not watch them on television every night?”
My goal was to have live sports on television every night. In 1976, there was only weekend sports and Monday Night Football available. I said, “Why? People love sports, and the sports are played every night, so why not watch them on television every night?”
In September of 1977, our network, Madison Square Garden Sports, was launched. It was the primary package of 125 sporting events from Madison Square Garden that we had licensed. Joe Cohen was running Madison Square Garden at that time, and he saw the vision of being able to have those sports seen across the country. There were only a couple million cable homes at this time, and proprietary programming was needed to grow the industry. In 1980, we changed the name to USA Network. At that point in time, we had already licensed Major League Baseball, National Basketball Association, National Hockey League, and assorted other sports like boxing and track and field, so we had all the professional sports except NFL, which came much later. I tried to come up with a name that people would think of as their own, that would be a reflection of everyone in the country who liked different sports. At our peak we had 550 live sporting events during the evening — and that was before ESPN.
On why sports matter to American culture
There are lessons to be learned from being on a team. The team concept is part of the fabric of our lives. Whatever we do in our lives, we must interact with other people. We have a strong attraction to people who have built great things, but none of them did it alone, and neither did I. We had great teams at USA Networks building our business together. Sports has that effect of learning to play as a team. There are individual sports; not all of them require teams, but even those individual players have to have their team around them: their coaches, nutritionists, and trainers. And sports bring people together. People get together in groups, at homes, in bars, at different places, and have fun rooting for their teams. It really is a very strong part of our American culture.
On the impact of Title IX for women in sports and television programming
Title IX has had a major impact on women, not only in sports. It leveled the playing field for women. It has given women access to the same sort of team playing that men have always had. Today, women who are strong, athletic, and competitive are revered for their ability to play and compete, and that didn’t happen before Title IX. Women were not even an ancillary part of the landscape. Even though there were great women athletes before Title IX, like Althea Gibson and Billie Jean King, we have to credit Title IX with the growth in women’s sports. Before Title IX there was no money for women in sports, and women were often relegated to amateur status because they didn’t have the experience to develop any professional leagues to any great extent. In 1982, USA Network did our first deal for the U.S. Open Tennis Tournament, and there was a lot of coverage for women’s competition as well as for men. Unfortunately there was a very limited number of women’s sports to choose from, in terms of a national footprint.
On the impact of cable on American society
Cable vastly changed our access to new ideas, programming, news coverage, sports coverage, etc. These are monstrous businesses today, which would not have existed if it had not been for cable television. It has provided a great diversity. Documentaries were very popular in television in the ’50s and ’60s but had almost disappeared from the landscape, until cable television brought them back into prominence. The return of documentaries that provide great education and understanding is a significant benefit to our society. On the other hand, the expansion of news with the 24-hour news channels are, in part, responsible for the division in our country. News has provided a great service to people by bringing information to light and reflecting our society, which is what news generally does. But it’s also divided us in terms of people watching only what suits their beliefs and hearing a representation of the news that is only partial and not a complete story. I’d like to find a way for us all to get to the complete story. All media provides us with that opportunity today, but it also divides us. We need to find a way to bring us to common ground.
On the Jogbra, Hank Aaron, and Star Trek’s Spock
Women in sports have to have the proper type of clothing, and the proper bra support in whatever sport you play is quite important for comfort and for avoiding injury. It’s really important for women to have that. As women have risen, as a result of Title IX, so has our clothing. I do a lot of work raising capital for women entrepreneurs, and the Fashion Tech Lab is one of our initiatives. We’ve seen a lot of clothing innovations, such as the transmission of heart rate and blood pressure data from a device that is embedded in the clothing.
Hank Aaron was my childhood hero. I lived in Milwaukee, and my father taught me how to score a baseball game on score sheets. I had all the hits and runs, the pitches, everything. My dad would come home, and I would tell him what happened in the game according to my scorecards. Of all those players on the Milwaukee Braves during the ’50s, Hank Aaron was my childhood hero. He’d come up to bat, and I’d sit by the radio with my score cards and sing Dance with Me, Henry! The Milwaukee Braves won the World Series in 1957, a year I will never forget.
Spock was emblematic in science fiction in Star Trek. I toured Oregon with Leonard Nimoy in 1972 during the presidential election. He was not a complete vegan at the time but was very focused on what he ate. Oregon, in 1972, was a progressive state in things like outdoor life and health, but it was very hard for him to find something to eat. But he was a lot of fun to tour with, and I got to know him pretty well at the time.
Star Trek was as close as we ever came to Shakespeare on television. It really addressed a lot of issues. It was a crew of very diverse people, and it was about how people of very diverse backgrounds could work together and fight against the enemies. It really was reflecting society, a diverse culture, and giving people food for thought in an entertainment format with great characters and exceptional writing.
Star Wars, on the other hand, is what I chose to launch the Sci-Fi Channel. To me, it is the ideal fantasy sci-fi series. We were the first network to have all three movies for telecast at one time – a great message to deliver to science fiction fans!