Type to search

The Family Behind the Television

Share

It was a baton of sorts.

Inspired by reading Calvin Coolidge, Berl Rotfeld had a plaque made with words that “encapsulated his work ethic,” says grandson Robby Rotfeld. The president’s opening line: “Nothing in the world can take the place of persistence.” The last: “Persistence and determination alone are omnipotent.”

Berl displayed the plaque on the wall of his office in Bala Cynwyd for years. It was a fixture among the photos, mementos and awards from his Greatest Sports Legends. The syndicated TV show ran from 1972 through 1993. 

“He wanted me to have it,” says Robby, who now has the plaque in his office. “So many people have talent, but talent alone gets you nowhere.”

From here on the Main Line, three generations of Rotfelds have helped define the ever-changing medium of television for the nation. Berl, who died in 2005, lived in Penn Valley.

Steve lives in the Wynnewood house where he launched Steve Rotfeld Productions 25 years ago. Robby, an alumnus of Lower Merion High School, is the future of his father’s company.

Berl and Steve’s TV shows have aired since the ’70s. The Emmy-winning Sports Legends was a staple of national sports programming. “It was no fluke,” says Matt Gibson, who worked with Berl and, later, Steve. “Steve really has storytelling ability.”

Now, he and Robby produce what Steve calls “pop-science” programming—science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) shows—mostly for the Fox Television Stations Group. The year-old Xploration Station is a weekly two-hour block of four shows aimed at 13- to 16-year-olds. It includes Xploration Awesome Planet, hosted and produced by renowned environmental advocate Philippe Cousteau Jr. (Jacques Cousteau’s grandson); Xploration Outer Space, hosted and produced by MIT graduate and astronautics expert Emily Calandrelli; Xploration Earth 2050; and Xploration Animal Science

Xploration Station airs in 80 percent of the country. That share will jump to 90 percent next fall, when it begins to air on Sinclair Broadcast Group stations. Another SRP show, Wild About Animals, has been on the air since 1993. There’s also the travel series Awesome Adventures and Whaddyado. The latter features real-life characters dealing with perilous situations.

A plan to distribute Xploration Station programming to schools is in the works, and Steve is looking into a new sports program with a science theme, along with an engineering show.

Among the several reasons Steve has been so successful: He’s willing to take “calculated risks,” says his accountant, Chuck Shechtman. “But he has a great sense of when to pull back.”

And he can see opportunities, Shechtman adds, “which explains the history of his diverse programming. There’s no question that his success is due to his creativity and competitiveness.” 

SRP has earned four Daytime Emmy Award nominations in the past two years—Best Host for Awesome Planet, Best Children’s Series for Animal Science, Best Special-Class Series for Earth 2050, and Best Travel Show for Awesome Adventures. In 2011, the company won Telly Awards for Wild About Animals and Whaddyado. A Telly is rare honor, bestowed on less than 10 percent of the industry. 

Meanwhile, Common Sense Media, the largest family-advocacy and media-ratings group in the country, named all four Xploration Station offerings Best Science Shows for Kids. 

“With Xploration Station, Steve had an idea, but he had to go sell it and make it happen out of thin air,” adds Gibson, the postproduction producer for Awesome Planet. “And, suddenly, there were these new shows. Now he’s, like, Mr. Television. He’s multitalented.”

Steve and Robby Rotfeld at Steve’s home office in Wynnewood this Summer.

From left: Steve with Charlie and Martin Sheen on the set of War of the Stars in 1984; Berl Rotfeld with Wayne Gretzky, James Worthy, Angel Cordero, Michael Jordan and Danny Sullivan at a Greatest Sports Legends reunion in 1984. 

Before TV, there was music. Berl, a piano prodigy, first pursued a career in songwriting. He published more than 150 songs and wrote for luminaries Steve Lawrence, Eydie Gorme, Dinah Shore and Sammy Davis Jr. Later, he produced a television show, The Gifted Ones, about talented young musicians.

Berl worked until an elective surgery set him back. He died 10 years ago at age 77. Robby, 30, has fond memories of vacations, where Berl would get the family choice tables, without reservations, at booked restaurants. “He wouldn’t take no for an answer,” says Robby, a graduate of Lehigh University, where he majored in psychology and minored in music. “He’d get an idea, and it was full speed ahead. He could hear the word ‘no,’ but he wouldn’t listen to ‘no.’ When he became sick, it all just stopped.”

“He’s what I call a big character,” says Steve, 59. “He was charismatic. He could fill the room. He was audacious, had no fear, and set an example. He gave us the idea that you could do anything you wanted to do. He especially believed in creativity and in avoiding television’s biggest sin—becoming boring. So he knew enough to take chances.”

Berl started Sports Legends when Steve was 20. Steve went on to law school and worked a few years before he joined Berl to help with shoots and interviews. When he decided to stick with Sports Legends, his father almost “swallowed his cigar,” says Steve. “And he didn’t even smoke.”

From left: A 28-year-old Steve with his 1983 Emmy for Outstanding Individual Achievement in Writing, for a Sports Legends show on Jackie Robinson.; Bob Uecker, Jack Lemmon and Steve Rotfeld at a taping of War of the Stars in 1986.

Then a film major at Temple University, Gibson started as a researcher. His first writing assignment was for broadcast great John Facenda. “He made everything sound good,”  Gibson says.

Gibson later made up a three-member production crew with Steve. When the two others left, Gibson did it all: setting up shoots, directing, writing and editing. “Berl was always in some other room, but he made it happen, enjoyed meeting the ‘legends,’ and led the good life,” Gibson
recalls. “He drove a Cadillac Seville, wore a cowboy hat, and was a character. He was tall and intimidating and could be gruff, but he was good with people. He was a maverick with getting the show on the air.”

When Berl went after basketball superstar Wilt Chamberlain, the native Philadelphian asked about compensation. Berl said he’d pay travel, accommodations and $500. “I don’t get out of bed for $500,” Chamberlain replied.

But he finally settled for $1,000. At the shoot, Berl and Chamberlain, both Overbrook High School graduates, sang the school fight song.

Gibson managed to book his idol, notoriously silent Phillies pitcher Steve Carlton, after his career ended. He calls former Football Hall of Famer Jim Brown the best legend he ever interviewed.

Over time, footage for Sports Legends became increasingly difficult to produce. The leagues grew less cooperative, and pro football cemented ties with NFL Films, which hindered Berl’s efforts any way it could. If he approached the Green Bay Packers to do a show on Herb Adderley, NFL Films would fight it. 

“The next thing you knew, we were doing more obscure legends like Olympians,” says Gibson.

Caitlyn (Bruce) Jenner included.

Robby and Steve at Yosemite taping Wild About Animals in 2010.

Steve Rotfeld worked with his father for five years, then set up SRP in an empty bedroom in Wynnewood. He filled it with a typewriter, a pen and a pad. He soon ran out of things to do. 

“There was no business,” he says. “But I’d always liked to write—even silly book reports in school. In college, if I had a choice between taking a test or writing a 15-page paper, I chose the paper. It was just the creative process of writing.”

Since that slow start, SRP hasn’t lacked for projects. When his daughter was born, Steve moved to the basement. As the business grew, neighbors complained about all the cars in the driveway, so he move the business to Bryn Mawr. The current SRP office in Haverford is his fourth relocation.

This year, the company is under contract to produce 70 episodes divided among seven weekly series that will beam into 90 million households. In all, that equates to 360 half-hour programs, which will mostly fill the educational broadcast time required by the FCC. 

“We’ve found that niche,” says Steve. “We’ve found it’s profitable, whereas others might not. So, as an independent, we’ve aggressively filled these slots.”

Right now, there are no cable shows in SRP’s catalog, but Steve has prospects. SRP’s last cable series was The Haney Project, which ran for five years on the Golf Channel. It was the highest-rated non-live event in the network’s history. It starred Tiger Woods’ former swing coach, Hank Haney, and one celebrity golfer per season. Former 76er Charles Barkley was the first. Others included Rush Limbaugh and Olympic swimmer Michael Phelps. 

Steve has produced Wild Weddings for TLC, ChatRoom, Camp Haney, Donald J. Trump’s Fabulous World of Golf and Golf in America. One of his most distributed shows was The Lighter Side of Sports, produced for ESPN. He also produced and syndicated TV’s first weekly sports blooper show, Bob Uecker’s Wacky World of Sports. It ran for a decade and, early on, defined the company. “Like any business, you just follow wherever it takes you,” Steve says.

Berl ran with Sports Legends for 20 years, then made a deal that extended the show another 10, from 1997 to 2007, with ESPN Classic, which re-aired the catalog. “At the end, he was still trying to get into the movie business,” says Steve. “He had a weight trainer that he was trying to make into the next Steven Seagal; he had a four-movie deal that somehow fizzled. But the deal with ESPN was like a bond that kept generating income—and kept him going.”

Berl had earned his due. “He started everything,” Robby says. “We just followed along.” 

Few were doing the work that he and another local family—the Sabols, with NFL Films—were doing in sports. “My father blazed trails, but he had to cut down the forest,” says Steve. “Nothing was really ready-made for him.”

Outsiders, Steve says, have tried to pigeonhole SRP. But he’s always rejected that. “I’m not a science expert, but I can do science shows,” Steve says. “We take the most interesting and smartest people in the world of science, and we do really interesting things with them. It boils down to needing to have characters (like Charles Barkley). A show can’t just be a concept.”

Steve’s focus these days is company growth. He has a team of 30, half of them full-time employees. His challenge is to maintain and protect what SRP has while expanding its platform. “If I didn’t always feel anxiety, we probably wouldn’t have any shows,” he says.

Robby began working at SRP in 2007. He lives on his editing machine, piecing together pictures. “If your television is on mute, you should still be able to understand exactly what’s going on,” he says. “The pictures should tell the story.”

He’s not sure when the TV industry clicked for him—but Steve is. During a grueling production run—26 shows of Animal Science—Robby often remarked how it was just “too much” and “a real grind,” Steve says. 

But when it was over, Robby told Steve it was “deeply satisfying.” “He knew he’d reached the end of the game,” Steve says.

He calls his son as a perfectionist. “He aggressively seeks perfection. He looks at something five times, making the slightest changes. It’s a different way of manifesting aggression,” Steve says. “He has a fire in his belly to make things right. I have a fire in my belly to build and grow the business. We need both. I’m determined to build the business, while he’s determined to make what we do great. We can’t be great if what we do isn’t great.”

The 2012 Emmys: Steve and wife Fern, Robby rotfeld and wife Gosia.

Steve does travel some, but he mostly works in the office. “You can have a million ideas, but you need to find distribution,” he says.

The idea for the STEM shows came from reading an article about America’s low ranking in math and science education. Steve is hoping one of his viewers will become the next Steve Jobs, or someone like him, who can change the world. 

“There’s the opportunity to inspire kids to pursue a career in science, math or technology—an opportunity to be on the side of the angels—while also pursuing my own livelihood,” he says. “We can make a difference. Sports bloopers aren’t that
socially redeeming.”

Steve, however, is always thinking about business. “It defines me seven days a week,” he says. “I’m always figuring out how to get something done, but I’ve found that, when people are the busiest, they’re the happiest. When you keep busy, you feel productive, useful and creative.”

“He’s a good boss,” Robby says of his father. “He knows when you do a good job, and, if not, then he lets you know. It’s a good balance. If you get complacent, you get a knock, and I appreciate that. He can let you go, but also reel you back in.”

Robby looks to Steve to analyze and critique his work. Steve turns to Robby for his unique sensibility. It’s a different relationship than Steve had with Berl. “My dad was such a big personality, there wasn’t room to grow,” Steve says. “He would always overshadow me. But he was just being him. It was me. But, back then, I thought it was him.”

Steve really likes playing golf, but says he can’t retire or shift gears—not now. There was no outside funding for the STEM shows, so there’s a capital investment that needs to pay off.

Meanwhile, the shiny hardware keeps coming in. Steve has won a Platinum AVA Digital Award, a National Association of Parenting Publications Gold Medal, honors from the Dove Foundation, a Parents’ Choice Award, and three Telly Awards. Steve sees the trophies and plaques as
satisfying reminders of the work he’s accomplished. Robby has his own opinion. “Trophies are in the past,” he says. “You can’t just sit and look at your trophies.”

 

To learn more about SRP, visit www.rotfeldproductions.com.