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Mel Harris

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"Twenty years ago, the genius of one man brought to television a program that has transcended the medium. We are enormously proud that that man, Gene Roddenberry, is going to do it again. Just as public demand kept The Original Series on the air, this new series is also a result of grassroots support for Roddenberry and his vision."
– Mel Harris, Studio Executive, officially announcing Star Trek: The Next Generation to the general populace, 10 October 1986 (Star Trek: The Next Generation - The Continuing Mission, p. 11)

Mel Harris (9 October 19426 September 2008; age 65) was a television and home video executive who, as head of Paramount Television, was responsible for the launch of The Next Generation in the Spring of 1986. Harris was enticed to order his subordinate, President Paramount Network Television John S. Pike to initiate the development of a new Star Trek television series, due to the continuing success of the Original Series in syndication, now augmented with three successful theatrical Star Trek films, and with a fourth movie and the 20th anniversary of the franchise coming up. Shortly thereafter, Harris found his decision to do so, strongly validated by the subsequently huge success of Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home, which had appealed to a far wider audience than the hardcore "Trekkie" fanbase alone. (William Shatner Presents: Chaos on the Bridge)

However, in a time were interest in televised science fiction was at an all-time low, Pike had a tough time finding networks interested. Only Fox Broadcasting Company showed interest for a half-season, but under conditions that were nowhere near enough to cover the projected budget of US$1.2 million dollar per episode for a full season, and dropped out of the negotiations on 6 August 1986. (Star Trek: The Next Generation - The Continuing Mission, p. 6). For the briefest of times it appeared that the new Star Trek television series appeared to have died before it even had been born, when Pike was approached by his colleague, Paramount Domestic Television President Lucie Salhany. She convinced Pike to produce the new series for direct syndication, an entirely novel idea at the time, ensuring him she could sell a full season of twenty-six episodes. Taking her cue from the syndication history of the Original Series, Salhany reasoned that even if the new series did not turn in a profit in first syndication run, the studio should still take its losses on this occasion, as subsequent runs would, not to mention the future revenues from associated sales, such as merchandise, home media formats (especially appealing to Harris, as he, in a previous function, had been responsible for revolutionizing the studio's home media sales), foreign sales and the like. Even more novel was Salhany's idea to offer the first syndication run of The Next Generation for free, in exchange for control over the seven-minute advertisement blocks. In order to manage financial risk, Harris green-lighted a half season run of thirteen episodes by the end of August, packaged with Original Series episodes (which were to be paid for by networks) was proposed to see if interest, especially from the side of advertisers obviously, in the new series would materialize, to continue production if it did. Subsequent events proved Salhany's hunch correct. In ultimately doing so, Star Trek again made television history. (William Shatner Presents: Chaos on the Bridge; Star Trek: The Next Generation - The Continuing Mission, pp. 5-7, 11)

Harris subsequently left the hammering out of details to his subordinate executive staff, but took it upon himself to become the studio spokesperson, vigorously representing the new series in public and to the press. One year after the direct-to-syndication decision had been made, Harris spoke in early August 1987 via satellite with the initial 170 television stations (covering 94 percent of American television households), that would air The Next Generation in first-run syndication. In a slick presentation, featuring footage and production scenes from the yet unfinished pilot, "Encounter at Farpoint", praising the business opportunities the new series entailed to commercial ends for those savvy enough to grasp. "The 24th century is about to begin!", he exclaimed at the end of the presentation, promising, "(...)some of the best-looking television anywhere on anybody's air this fall." (Star Trek: The Next Generation Companion, 2003, p. 22) Harris was even not above intimating to the press that the entirely novel direct-to-syndication approach had been from the start a visionary studio initiative in the first place, when boasting to the New York Times of 2 November 1986, "We realized that nobody else was going to care as much about Star Trek as we did!" (Star Trek: The Next Generation - The Continuing Mission, p. 6)

Harris was interviewed in September 1988 for the documentary The Star Trek Saga: From One Generation To The Next. On 6 June 1991, shortly before celebrating the 100th episode of The Next Generation, the Producers Building at the former Desilu studio lot was renamed "Gene Roddenberry Building". On that occasion Harris held a speech praising Roddenberry, who passed away only four months later.

Remarkably, and very much unlike his (preceding) studio executive colleagues, Harris has been one of the very few studio executives, if not the only one, being on record as a Roddenberry supporter (in public at least), having in 1993 attributed the success of The Next Generation in full to him, "In the period since 1987 no other program has been able to get anywhere near ['TNG']....It's primarily because of the program that was created....[I]f this hadn't been created in the way that it was by Gene Roddenberry, it probably wouldn't be on the air today and it certainly wouldn't be performing as it is." If Harris' praise had been genuine, then it was obvious that he had not been present on those occasions when his subordinate John Pike and his colleagues had to deal with Roddenberry. Like so many predecessors before him, Pike has had his share of run-ins with Roddenberry. (William Shatner Presents: Chaos on the Bridge; [1])

Previously, and before he attained the position of president of the television division, Harris, upon joining Paramount in 1977, had been named Vice President of Research for a new television network called Paramount Television Service. The centerpiece of this new network's line-up was to have been Star Trek: Phase II. Ultimately, however, the plans for both the Paramount network (when Harris discovered that the USA was not yet ready for a fourth network due to the fact that advertiser's interest did not materialize) and Phase II were abandoned, with the pilot for the latter project becoming Star Trek: The Motion Picture.

Career outside Star TrekEdit

Harris was born in Arkansas City, Kansas, and began his broadcasting career as a radio disc jockey while attending Kansas State University in the 1960s. He graduated from Kansas State in 1964 and received a master's degree in mass communications from Ohio University in 1965. He served as the commander of a combat photography unit in the Army Signal Corps in Vietnam from 1969 through 1970, for which he was awarded a Bronze Star. In 1971, he received his doctorate in mass communications from Ohio University. He then managed local television stations in Cleveland and Philadelphia before joining Paramount in 1977.

With his work for a new Paramount network finished, Harris was named Vice President of Program Marketing for Paramount Television Group. During this time, Harris helped launch the USA Network, the older sister network of the Sci-Fi Channel. He also introduced satellite distribution for first-run programming with the launch of the Paramount news magazine Entertainment Tonight (co-hosted by John Tesh).

As the President of Paramount Video, Harris helped to create the home video sell-through market by convincing Paramount to sell low-priced videos directly to the public to persuade customers to purchase videos rather than simply renting them. At the time, videos for sale were priced at around $50 or more; Harris accurately predicted that decreasing the price would create a market for videocassette purchases.

In 1985, Harris became President of Paramount Television Group. In this position, Harris oversaw the launch of The Next Generation (which immensely profited from Harris' videocassette policies) and many other television series. He also handled Paramount's launch of cable and satellite channels overseas. Harris resigned from Paramount in 1991, around the time Brandon Tartikoff was named the studio's chairman, and who incidentally, as head of network NBC, had five years earlier declined The Next Generation for the network. During his fourteen-year tenure as a top executive at Paramount, Harris helped to popularize and modernize both the home video market and the first-run syndication business.

In 1992, Harris joined Sony Pictures Entertainment, where he headed the studio's television division and later oversaw their home video operations. He took Sony's Columbia TriStar Television into first-run syndication before a power struggle forced him to leave in 1995. He worked as a cable television consultant before returning to Sony in 1999 as co-president and chief operating officer, retiring in 2002.

Harris resided in Malibu, Florida after retirement. He died of cancer at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center in Los Angeles on 6 September 2008. He is survived his wife of 42 years, Ruth, their son, Harris, a brother, and two grandchildren.

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