Perry Sook, chairman and CEO of Nexstar Media Group, says negotiating with Ray Hopkins is like “watching the first 15 minutes of Saving Private Ryan over and over again.”
Jordan Wertlieb, chief operating officer of Hearst, compared dealing with Hopkins to a 19th-century duel. “It is defined. It is gentlemanly. It is head-on. And once it concludes it concludes,” he said. “Both parties are bloody but shake hands at the end of the day.”
When asked about Hopkins, Tegna CEO Dave Lougee recalled cartoons in which the barnyard dog would protect his chickens ferociously all day long, but when the whistle blew at 5 p.m., he’d have a drink with the predator and ask about his family.
Despite the fireworks, Sook, Wertlieb and Lougee all consider Hopkins a friend.
Hopkins grew up in New Jersey. His father, Big Ray, negotiated as a union rep. He wanted to be in sales and, after two years selling medical supplies, his aunt, In Demand CEO Dale Hopkins — then in ad sales for CNBC — helped him get an interview in the TV business.
Hopkins took a job in affiliate relations at CNBC. He planned to do that for a few years, then move over to ad sales. “Thirty years later, I’m still waiting.”
He did some of the first retransmission-consent deals. “I can always teach the business, but I can’t teach intangibles like good judgment, work ethic and passion for the industry,” Bridget Baker, former president of TV Network Distribution at NBC, recalled. “From the first meeting, I could tell Ray wanted to win. He was instinctively a good negotiator.”
Hopkins, who loves sports, moved to Prime Ticket, the Los Angeles regional sports network acquired by Fox. At Fox, Hopkins was part of an all-star lineup of young cable distribution execs, also including Mike Hopkins, Mike Biard, Dana Zimmer and Albert Cheng, said NBCUniversal CEO Jeff Shell, who was president of Fox Cable Networks. “Ray was definitely the first among equals back then,” Shell said. Shell took Hopkins with him when Rupert Murdoch chose him to try to fix Gemstar-TV Guide.
Hopkins, a Mets fan, was recruited by Tracy Dolgin, another former Fox exec, to join YES Network. “By far the best distribution person I’ve ever met in my life is Ray,” Dolgin said. “He’s a unicorn. Even though he got an amazing deal, the top people at the top distributors loved him. They walked out feeling it was a partnership and they knew with 100% certainty that every single thing he said in that meeting was true.”
Hopkins helped sell YES at the top of the market to Fox. “Now, he’s a Yankee fan. We paid for his house in the Bahamas and the Jersey Shore and his parents’ house in Florida,” Dolgin said.
CBS had meetings about buying YES and wound up hiring Hopkins. When CBS combined with Viacom, Viacom CEO Bob Bakish picked Hopkins to head distribution for Paramount Global.
“I’m very grateful for being in an industry by pure luck and having so much upward trajectory,” Hopkins said. “Along the way I’ve had great bosses, many of whom I’ve become good friends with. They have mentored me and trusted me to do the job.”
Hopkins works hard and plays hard. “A round of golf with Ray is an 18-hole betting affair. I’ve even seen Ray turn the practice tee into a competition while we’re warming up,” Sook said. Hopkins doesn’t believe in letting the client win. “I don’t win all the time, but it’s not for a lack of trying or effort,” Hopkins confirmed.
Gemstar-owned horse racing channel TVG and Hopkins would send friends an annual email with Kentucky Derby picks. “For seven years in a row, I won money on the Kentucky Derby,” Shell said. “Once he got the CBS job, I stopped winning money.”
Hopkins doesn’t believe in betting on his health. When a pimple wouldn’t heal, he went to a doctor. A short procedure turned into eight hours of surgery and 75% of his nose being removed. The cancer is gone and with reconstructive surgery, he says you can barely notice that he has a new nose.
“If I didn’t get tested it would have metastasized and become a larger issue,” he said. “I can’t stress enough for those that are fair-skinned to get tested regularly.”
During his recuperation Hopkins grew a beard. “My daughter says it makes me look a little more relaxed,” he said.
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Jon has been business editor of Broadcasting+Cable since 2010. He focuses on revenue-generating activities, including advertising and distribution, as well as executive intrigue and merger and acquisition activity. Just about any story is fair game, if a dollar sign can make its way into the article. Before B+C, Jon covered the industry for TVWeek, Cable World, Electronic Media, Advertising Age and The New York Post. A native New Yorker, Jon is hiding in plain sight in the suburbs of Chicago.