Fred Seibert likes to say that he's lived three FIVE lives … so far, anyway. He's been a cable TV pioneer, an ad agency owner, a TV and feature film cartoon producer, and, most recently, an Internet network executive. Oh, wait. We forgot "Jazz Cat" — a title he earned in the 1970s as the founder and head of Oblivion Records, a blues and jazz label.
In short, Seibert defines the title serial media entrepreneur. He was the first creative director of MTV, joining the parent company (then called Warner-Amex Satellite Entertainment Company) in May 1980. And he was the last president of Hanna-Barbera Cartoons.
One of his companies, Frederator Networks, is a leading independent online media start-up and cartoon production company. Another, Frederator Books, makes digital books for kids.
He's also the founder of multiple companies, including Channel Frederator, one of the first online animation networks, Next New Networks (acquired by YouTube) and Cartoon Hangover, the home of Bravest Warriors and Bee & PuppyCat (the largest animation Kickstarter in history). He's on the board of directors of Sawhorse Media and was the first investor in Tumblr.
But there is much more to Fred Seibert.
Dinner Lunch with Andre Fred
I joined Fred for lunch at one of his favorite restaurants, 1200 Miles on West 21st Street, directly across the street from the World Headquarters of Frederator Networks as well as many of his other “projects in the works.”
Fred and I are old friends. We worked together at MTV "back in the day” so our conversations are a combination of “how are the wives, how are the kids and can you believe we are now AARP members?” But regardless of his age, Fred never stops … and one of his favorite sayings is “some of my best advisors are one-third my age. Just look around the Frederator Offices and you will see exactly what I mean."
Sobel: Can you share some highlights of your fascinating life?
Seibert: They’re all highlights. Seriously.
Over the years, I’ve quit any job I’ve had — including a few companies that I owned — when the job wasn’t fun anymore (“fun” being defined as one, having a good time, two, making money and three, being able to stand the people I’m working with). Creating an environment of “once in a lifetime experiences” for my colleagues and me has always been first and foremost on my mind. Because if we’re excited about our work, our viewers and customers will be happy, too.
I made jazz and blues records because I wanted to work with The Beatles, but they’d broken up by the time I started the business. Jazz was new and thrilling to me, and the chance to work with world-class musicians who’d forgotten more than I’d ever know in five lifetimes was too enticing to pass up.
We come from a generation where pop music ruled world culture, and working at a recording company was the pinnacle. After not getting a job in every department at Sony Music (in retrospect, I had exactly the wrong personality to make it in the record business) I landed in radio. But I was frustrated with a business where everyone thought they were smarter than the new kid. Cable was perfect. It was the “new technology” of its day (the early 80s), and our company wanted to start a music channel. Perfect for me. At what became MTV, I was able to fulfill my teenage dreams of making pop music less of an underground club and safe for all. Maybe we did our jobs too well, because looking back, it could be said that MTV was the beginning of the end of popular music’s culture dominance.
Cartoons fit the same paradigm for me. If one came of the age during the 50s and 60s, the conventional adult wisdom was that popular culture, be it TV, music or movies, was “disposable,” which really ticked me off. And the cartoons I loved the most — Bugs Bunny, Huckleberry Hound and The Flintstones — came under particular derision. When the completely accidental opportunity came to run Hanna-Barbera Cartoons in 1992, were there hadn’t been a major hit since The Smurfs in the early 80s, I jumped at it. We were able to completely turn the culture in the studio that had become predictable and stale into one of the most exciting cartoon incubators in the world, spawning new generations of creators who now rule the industry, having created everything from The Powerpuff Girls to The Fairly OddParents to Adventure Time.
And then came the Internet. It seemed impossible to me at 48 years old that I could reinvent myself for a fourth or fifth time, I felt just too old to learn another language again. Luckily, I had a few teenage mentors who were able to patiently re-educate my brain into the new world, and now, at 63, I feel more on fire and entrepreneurial than ever before.
Sobel: In your bio you say, “In 1981, I was director of on-air promotion at The Movie Channel. My boss there (Bob Pittman, now Chairman and CEO of iHeartMedia, formerly Clear Channel) asked me to help launch a fledgling cable network that would do nothing but play music all day and all night. It was going to be called MTV: Music Television. Back then very few people had cable. A lot of industry professionals thought the whole idea was crazy." There are so many great stories and we can spend an entire day talking about the early days at MTV including your idea to get viewers to say “I Want My MTV!”
Let's talk about the challenges you faced starting something that had never been tried before. If I can give you an example, when I left my "management track" job in OAP (On-Air Promotion) at ABC my boss thought I was nuts. "An all music channel, on cable...trust me, you'll be there a year and you'll be calling me to come back." Get what I mean?
Seibert: I got into the cable business in 1980, knowing nothing about television (“You really don’t want to hire me. I watch TV, I don’t want to make it”) and saying to my bosses “I already have seven channels of TV. Why do I need any more?” Happily, they ignored me.
Every one of us knew, deep in our bones, that broadcast television was "fat, f---ed up, and over!” (though, on reflection, it definitely was not). We were the TV babies who had the instincts of natives as to what could be improved. Cable TV was our chance to reinvent the sucker.
Whenever I was challenged from above “that’s not how television does things,” I’d get on my high horse and say we weren’t making TV, we were making M-TV, we were different and we needed to rewrite the rules for the generations to come, not the generations past. Did we do it? I think in a lot of ways, we did. Not in all of them, for sure, and that’s where the Internet has come around to “fix” things all over again.
Sobel: Following your stint at MTV you formed a company with your buddy (and now brother-in-law) Alan Goodman despite the fact everyone again said you were crazy. As you said “Because of Alan’s love for mid-twentieth century comedians we called our company Fred/Alan, and set up offices in Jackie Gleason’s former headquarters in the Park Sheraton hotel. F/A eventually became became one of the most successful marketing and branding agencies for a wide range of new and established clients including MTV Networks to name a few. Tell us about it?
Seibert: At MTV Networks, without any conscious understanding, we put our channel’s audience at the center of activity, rather than what broadcasting had done, which was to be everything for everyone (they were broad-casting, after all). I used to say that my job was to “make the ‘M’ the star” rather than the music videos.
When Alan and I set up Fred/Alan, we’d accelerated our thinking to realize that television had evolved to the point where each successful channel had to stand for something specific, for specific audiences. And when we were triumphant, not only were the audiences happier, advertisers were happier to pay a little more to be associated with us. We were creating “brands,” a term that had never been used in media.
Fred/Alan became the world’s first agency that developed “media brands,” creating strategies and executions that could help companies be more successful with audiences and business partners. We’d done it with MTV, and went on to do it with Nickelodeon (where we brought them from worst to first in the ratings within six months), Nick-at-Nite (which we conceived from scratch) and TV Land, VH1 and Comedy Central, among others. It was a great ride.
Sobel: Following Fred/Alan, you landed the job of President of one of the best known animation studios in the world, Hanna-Barbera, the home of Fred Flintstone and George Jetson to name a few. But it appeared H-B hit on hard times and again everyone again thought you were crazy ... apparently you proved them quite wrong?
Seibert: Ted Turner bought Hanna-Barbera for its library of 3300 cartoons so he could start Cartoon Network. I was bored being in the agency business and Fred/Alan started having competitors in the nascent media branding business (I hate arguing head to head; it’s much better to be the inventor and leader in a space). I complained to Scott Sassa, head of Turner Entertainment that I was going to “retire” and conceive a new venture. He offered me the job of turning around the almost moribund cartoon studio instead. Here I was again in a business where I knew nothing about actually creating the company’s product, but where I’d been a thrilled viewer as a child.
I was completely upfront with Ted and Scott and with the staff that I had no idea what I was doing there. So, I turned to the employees and asked them what they thought we could do to make the studio work. One by one, they voiced what had been an inchoate thought in my head. The company (and the TV industry) had abandoned actual “cartoons” and was busy making animated sitcoms and movies. Some of the staff left, but those who stuck around were completely psyched to reclaim their famous heritage and eagerly embraced (with only a few bumps along the way) the young talent that came flocking in.
Within a couple of years, we’d launched our “back to the future” show of animated short cartoons called What A Cartoon!, a tip of the hat to the great theatrical shorts that spawned everything from Tom & Jerry to Looney Tunes to Mickey Mouse. Even though H&B founders Bill Hanna and Joe Barbera no longer ran the studio, they jumped in and created a handful of our 48 shorts.
The great shows we originated including The Powerpuff Girls, Johnny Bravo, Dexter’s Laboratory (and several more) powered Cartoon Network to the top of the cable heap with kids, and the talent we brought to the fore continues to be the leaders of their generation of creators.
Sobel: Not long thereafter Time Warner acquired Hanna Barbera and essentially merged it into what became a subsidiary of Warner Bros. Animation. You moved back to New York and created what we now know as Frederator Studios, eventually known as Frederator Networks, distributing more than 1000 channels, making it the world’s largest animation network. Your channel Cartoon Hangover has just launched a new hit show, Bee and PuppyCat, one of the most successfully funded cartoons by a Kickstarter campaign, as well as a partnership with Sony Pictures Animation. I'm interested in last days of HB, the inspiration behind Frederator and its success.
Seibert: Ted Turner was one of the great visionaries of the 20th century and had build his Turner Broadcasting into the 10th largest media company in the world. But he felt the company needed to be even bigger to fulfill the dreams he had. He sold to Time Warner in 1996 and I felt that working for a genius was a lot different than being part of a faceless media conglomerate. Besides, I was never a great employee, something that never really bothered a natural entrepreneur like Ted.
I started Frederator Studios in early 1997, signed an exclusive deal with my friends at MTV Networks, determined to continue introducing new talent and successful cartoon series to the world. It worked. We’ve produced 99 short films and nine series for Nickelodeon, one of which, The Fairly OddParents, is still in production after 14 years, and is one of cable’s top ratings hits.
But we didn’t stop with cartoons. I had a quick interim stint running the MTV Networks online business, got introduced to the stunning young engineering talent that was constantly reinventing consumer Internet, and started playing around with how media and the Web could intersect. I founded the first online video programming company, Next New Networks, with a young Long Islander named Emil Rensing and some co-founders, and soon we were one of the leading companies in “the space.” YouTube acquired Next New Networks in 2011, and we folded Frederator Studios into Frederator Networks and kept going.
Sobel: One of the stories I love the most is how you met David Karp and got involved with Tumblr. Can you share it?
Seibert: In 1999, my family moved back to New York from LA. We kept the Hollywood office going to produce cartoons, and Emil and I set up Frederator/New York to consult and build Internet media companies. My young son's science teacher asked me to meet her own high schooler, David Karp, who’d just begun home-schooling. His New York public high didn’t have the computer classes he was interested in, and we had engineers on our team who might inspire him.
David started interning at Frederator full time in 2001, and when he decided to set up a development business instead of attending college, he rented a desk from Frederator. He built our blogging platform, developed products for himself and clients, and one day told me about “tumblelogging.”
I had no idea what David was saying, but when he launched Tumblr — the first formal platform for tumblelogging — and added social features that allowed for unprecedented creation and sharing of content, we became his first investor. I joined his board as the independent director, and stayed until the company was acquired by Yahoo! for over $1 billion in 2013 -- a rare feat for a New York-based technology company. David’s still the CEO at 28 years old, the company’s still growing like gangbusters, and has been one of Yahoo!’s great bright spots in the last few years.
I’m proud to say that David has served, unknowingly I think, as one of my main mentors throughout the Web 2.0 era and made me seem much smarter to the technology world.
Sobel: Speaking of Tumblr, you say in your bio “I’m attracted to community, to places where disenfranchised people find what they love, and find each other and get creative. I’m attracted to heart and soul and humor, and to things that are wild, weird and unpredictable. I guess you could say I’m attracted to crazy." Can you share those thoughts with our readers?
Seibert: The Beatles came to America when I was 12 years old, and I joined the worldwide community of rock’n’roll super fans they spawned, enough so that a few years later, I abandoned my long held plan to become a chemist and started my march into media and entertainment. Ever since that Ed Sullivan show in 1964, I’ve unconsciously been attracted to working with people that could spark that kind of fandom. The Internet has enabled all sorts of “communities” by making it easy for people with shared passions to find each other globally.
Over the past few years I’ve realized that, in fact, my actual job has been nothing more than being a kind of professional fan, which has allowed me to project myself past music into television, cartoons, and technology. Who knows what’s next? Someone’s going to walk into my workspace, I’m going to fall in love and we’ll be off on our next adventure.
Sobel: I was intrigued by the article in TechCrunch where you were quoted as saying "Over the years, we’ve seen not as much innovation in the video space as we had hoped for" and at Thirty Labs your mission is simple, to “develop different ways for people to find and see content.” Can you expand on that?
Seibert: When I was growing up, there was only one-way to watch TV, and that was on, indeed, a television set. Duh.
But over the past decade, TV watching has spread far and wide on a multitude of devices, and the methods of bringing video to viewers has been constantly innovating. And the very nature of what exactly video is has changed too. Is a Snapchat video the same as a Seinfeld episode?
There are so many hundreds of innovations to come in video that I wanted to be a part of it. Jon Miller (former Chairman of AOL), Yoel Flohr (formerly of News Corporation) set up a technology incubator, Thirty Labs, in partnership with a leading New York tech incubator Betaworks, uniquely dedicated to develop new video ideas. Not TV programs, but ideas for video platforms, ways to share video, virtual reality video …. Actually, I have no idea what the innovations could be. Not only am I not an engineer or inventor, if a 63-year-old guy like me already knew what the products could be, it wouldn’t be an innovation. Would it?