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The Couple of the Minute

Doing good with Bob and Sandy Pittman.

By Michael Gross
Originally published in the July 30, 1990 issue of New York Magazine

“I HAVE NOTHING TO TALK ABOUT,” ROBERT W. PITTMAN SAYS, his Mississippi drawl in fast-forward. The words come across the phone as quickly as images on MTV, the music network he once ran. “I’m in the press too much. It looks awful. It’s deadly. I’ve got nothing going on. If there was a reason, okay, but it’s deadly. I’m disturbed my profile is as high as it is. I’m afraid to go out.”

But go out he does with Sandy, his Jackie Kennedy-look-alike wife, relentlessly raising that profile. Even when Bob was hobbling on crutches after breaking his hip last year, the Pittmans hopped from high-profile fashion parties to charity benefits to dinners at Punsch, working rooms, posing for paparazzi, and holding court. And hold court they should, for Bob, now head of a Time Warner business-development unit, and Sandy, a former fashion stylist turned outdoors entrepreneur, are the couple of the minute, the latest prince and princess of the city.

They met as two ambitious young arrivals from the sticks and became prototypical young achievers. Constantly moving with the times, they charged into the city’s New Society circuit in the late eighties, showing off their power, style, connections, achievements, and acquisitions at every opportunity. Now, in the nineties, friends are describing Bob, 36, and Sandy, 35, as avatars of the new altruism. But they are also symbols of the new defensiveness, refusing, for instance, to be interviewed for this article.

“It invites sniping,” Bob explains in our one phone conversation for the record. “You know what? I’m the luckiest S.O.B. ever walked out of Mississippi. But it’s troubling at a certain point. You’d like to get involved, but charities think you’re only in it for P.R.” To be a part of these new, quieter, do-good times, it’s better for them not to be seen promoting themselves. Anyway, they’ve done enough of that already.

Bob Pittman came out of Mississippi as the quintessential baby-boomer, boasting that he had the attention span of a flea. He also had the slick soul of a marketing genius raised on nothing but rock and television. Ever since he became a teenage D.J. in Jackson, Mississippi, in 1970, he has played a public role. Though he never graduated from any of the four colleges he attended, in 1977, at 23, he was named the program director of WNBC radio in New York. A few months later, he’d parlayed that position into starring roles in the station’s television commercials and on a late-night rock TV show.

In 1979, Pittman married Sandy Hill, 24, a merchandising editor at Mademoiselle magazine. Three years later, as a senior vice-president of the Warner Amex Satellite Entertainment Company, Bob was put in charge of the infant music network MTV. “All I worry about is winning,” he told the New York Times.

The onetime hippie from Mississippi had turned into a full-fledged yuppie. In 1984, he was a runner-up to Time magazine’s Man of the Year, Pete Ueberroth. The next year, Sandy started a fashion-video company and began running charity benefits, and Bob tried to lead a group of executives in a leveraged buy-out of MTV but lost the company to Viacom.

Pittman left MTV in 1987 to launch a co-venture with MCA, Inc., which invested more than $15 million in Quantum Media-Pittman’s dream of a multifaceted entertainment company for the nineties. He wanted to be the youngest, brashest Turk — the Donald Trump — of the media kingdom. Nowadays, he is pursuing the same vision at Time Warner by day and mingling with business, entertainment, and social stars by night. Gentleman Bob even escorted Ivana Trump to her car one recent gala night and told WWD how gratified he was by the experience.

* * *

IT’S A GOOD LIFE. THE PITTMANS HAVE BEGUN ACCUMULATING modern art and have made it onto several high-powered charity and cultural boards, from the New York Shakespeare Festival’s to the Coro Eastern Center’s. Bob pilots his own plane on his frequent trips to the Coast. Sandy has skied the back bowls at Aspen, kayaked in the Arctic Circle, trekked in Nepal, and backpacked in the Grand Tetons. In doing all this, the pair have generated newspaper articles, and profiles in magazines like Esquire, GQ, and HG, and enough party-page photos and mentions in gossip columns to line the walls of their Central Park West apartment, their 9,000 square-foot converted barn in Connecticut, and maybe, soon, Sandy’s compact but impressive two-seat helicopter.

Now Sandy is switching into career high gear herself, working on what friends describe as an ambitious plan to become the Martha Stewart of the outdoors. “She was saying, `What do I do with my life?’ ” recalls a friend. “It was Bob’s idea. He’s so smart.” Though there are no deals yet, Sandy hopes to produce a series of books and videos on adventure-travel topics and maybe even a line of outdoor gear and clothing. An obsessively organized woman, she’s already at work on publicity-a series of articles in Mirabella about her active outdoor life.

All this casts some doubt on Pittman’s proclamation about keeping a low profile. At Isaac Mizrahi’s fashion show in April, for instance, Sandy told a fashion editor about her project, saying that her first step would probably be a book on mountain climbing. “Are you sure that’s the kind of climbing you’re writing about?” came the reply.

BOTH FRIENDS AND DETRACTORS describe the Pittmans as a perfect match. They are ambitious, attractive, directed, and well-spoken to the point of glibness. Bob is the son of a Methodist minister who moved around the state before finally settling in Brookhaven, Mississippi, when Bob was in junior high. He was the ultimate outsider-a scrawny church brat who had lost an eye when he was thrown from a horse at the age of six. But he was always ambitious. “Bob always wanted to be rich and famous,” his brother Tom once recalled. “That was clear … He said so.”

Sandy was raised in Los Gatos, in Northern California, the athletic daughter of a businessman who rented portable toilets. “She comes from pretty modest means,” says Beth Rudin DeWoody, a friend of the couple’s. A former Conde Nast coworker says, “To hear her description, she comes from a lot of money. But, in fact, her parents are very down-to-earth people, not at all like her.”

Before she came to New York, in the late seventies, Sandy led outdoor trips, went to UCLA, and worked in retail stores. By the time she was spotted by a Mademoiselle editor at a bus stop on her way to her first job in New York, at Bonwit Teller, she was perfectly packaged. When she started as a merchandising editor at Mademoiselle, she was married to Jerry Solomon, a businessman she’d met in California who is now president of ProServe, a Virginia sports marketing and management company. “He’s a player, too,” says a journalist who covers the tennis scene. “He’s very slick. He was very successful very young.” Sandy also seemed groomed for the fast track. “She was beautiful,” says Lisa Norris Eisner, a Conde Nast co-worker. “She was smart, ambitious, and always, always clever.”

“Sandy knew how to merchandise herself,” says another coworker. “She was so clear about what she wanted, and she’d aim right for the top. She was like a magazine article. How to look. How your house should look. How to have a conversation. You’d walk away thinking, Wow! There was a point when she could have gone in a different direction. The ambition was just a seedling then.”

Sandy’s employers found that ambition admirable. But they, too, say she may have carried it too far. “At that time,” says one, “Conde Nast had the illusion of family. People who’d been there for years were playing by the old rules. She didn’t play the game in that manner.” But she was a natural winner. A co-worker says that even when she and Solomon broke up, just before Christmas 1978, “she came back smelling like a rose.”

The following January, Sandy was on her way to Los Angeles, planning to continue on to San Francisco to visit her parents, when she spotted Bob Pittman across an airplane aisle. She thought he was attractive. “I gathered my strategy together as to how to talk to him,” she once said. She decided he’d be most attracted to her if he saw her reading The New Yorker, ” ’cause that says a lot about a person.” It was love at first sight. When their flight was diverted to San Francisco, they spent the night at her parents’, who were out of town. The next day, they took a romantic drive down the coast highway to Los Angeles. Back in New York, Bob filled Sandy’s apartment with roses. They married in July.

* * *

WHEN THEY MET, Bob, an itinerant radio D.J. and program director, had just moved from WNBC to the new Warner Amex Satellite Entertainment Company as program director for the Movie Channel. He quickly became a vice president in charge of programming for the Movie Channel as well as developing various other programs. Sandy changed jobs, too. She surprised her Mademoiselle bosses when she moved to Bride’s as beauty editor. “Everyone said, `My God. Why she?’ ” one top editor recalls. “It didn’t last very long.”

When she left to open her own fashion styling and event-planning business, she left behind few admirers. Co-workers have even formed a loose network over the years. One calls it “a Sandy Pittman Hate Club.” Members copy stories about the Pittmans, send them to one another, and “foam at the mouth and rip out our hair,” one co-worker says.

On August 1, 1981, MTV, the all-music cable network, became a reality if not an overnight success. MTV was reportedly losing $20 million a year in 1982. The next year, Sandy gave birth to the Pittmans’ only child, Robert Thomas, who is known as Bo, and Bob was named executive vice-president and chief operating officer of the Warner Amex networks. That same year, MTV ratings rose by 20 percent. By the fourth quarter, the network started turning a profit.

MTV itself was Bob Pittman’s first major national controversy. The question of who created it was the next one. Many articles have given him sole credit, and he has also claimed it. “MTV was a pet idea of mine,” he told the Daily News in 1986.

Others say MTV was conceived by John Lack, who hired Pittman. Lack won’t comment. “I’m not the guy you want to talk to about Bob and Sandy Pittman,” Lack says. “I’m uncomfortable discussing it.” In fact, the idea had been floating around for years. The 1977 show Album Tracks, with Pittman as host, featured clips of rockers like Kansas and Meatloaf. And Pittman says that at least one all-music channel was on the air in Georgia before MTV.

But Pittman still feels the sting of the controversy and backpedals when discussing the origins of MTV. “John Lack I love to death,” he says. “He got me the meeting with [then Warner chairman Steve] Ross and [American Express chairman] James Robinson. At the end of the day, they’re the ones who should claim credit, because they decided to spend the money.”

Still, Pittman became the unquestioned leader of MTV. In 1984, he supervised the revamping of another Warner Amex product, Nickelodeon. In 1985, he introduced the mellow video station VH-1, and a Nickelodeon offshoot, Nick at Nite. That same year, the company went public, and Pittman, MTV president David Horowitz, and a group of other executives put together a $477-million bid for the networks. Viacom gobbled them up in November, after Pittman’s attempt failed. A few days before Christmas, Viacom made him the president and CEO of MTV Networks, Inc.

But Pittman wanted more. By May 1986, he’d announced that he was going to resign. When he left MTV that fall, he had stock options worth more than $2.4 million-and a plan. Backed by MCA, Inc., he formed Quantum Media, Inc., with a mandate to build and buy companies across the entertainment board.

* * *

SANDY HADN’T BEEN RESTING, EITHER. AFTER BO’S BIRTH, she went back to work. In early 1985, the MTV influence was everywhere. Fashion videos produced by entrepreneurs like Christy Ferer of Vidicom, Inc., had been running for years on local and cable style shows and even on nationally syndicated programs like Entertainment Tonight. With her magazine background and her television husband, Sandy was perfectly positioned to take advantage of the situation.

Sandy Hill Pittman Productions went into video. “She was making her move,” a colleague says. “Sandy had this idea to do what Bob had done with MTV and make the same impact.” Her company biography describes her as “one of the pioneers of fashion videos.” But a video-industry source who knew her in those days describes her as “uppity and presumptuous.”

Help soon came from Don Ohlmeyer, who was best known as the former head of NBC Sports. More important for the Pittmans, Ohlmeyer had gone on to become an independent TV producer and head of the agency that placed commercials for his backer, Nabisco. When Ohlmeyer decided to put Nabisco’s commercials on MTV, he became one of the new network’s key supporters. He also produced MTV’s first Video Music Awards show, which was broadcast live from Radio City Music Hall in 1984. “Bob and Don became friends,” says a source in the video business. “The next thing you knew, Ohlmeyer opened a fashion-video division.” After Sandy co-produced a swimsuit video with Ohlmeyer, she shut down her company to become president of In Fashion, an Ohlmeyer division, in July 1985. She began making regular men’s-, women’s-, and swimwear fashion reports for ESPN and developing a daily fashion show.

That November, Sandy played a major part at two big New York events. She connected the nonprofit Fashion Group with Pittman and MTV, which not only provided footage and technical and creative support but underwrote a presentation on the music channel and its fashion influence. “Not too long after that,” says the group’s executive director, Lenore Benson, “Sandy came to talk to me about the possibility of becoming a Fashion Group production company.” It didn’t work out.

But a fashion-show benefit for Live Aid, Bob Geldof’s Ethiopian-relief organization, proved a professional bonanza. Sandy met and worked with Norma Kamali (who directed a video that Sandy co-produced for the benefit) and Details founder Annie Flanders, who was co-chairwoman of the evening with Sandy. The Fashion Aid benefit grew out of a dinner conversation that the Pittmans had one night with Harvey Goldsmith, a British concert promoter. Sandy offered to produce an American event simultaneously with one he’d planned for London. “She was very lovely, sweet, and enthusiastic,” says someone who helped run the show, “but I can’t think of one thing she did.”

What she did was get her husband interested in Details. A year later Bob Pittman offered to buy the magazine as a key piece in his plan for Quantum. “He wanted to use us to find young talent and give it a chance to be realized,” says Flanders. “He wanted to be in advertising, publishing, television, and give each of them synergy with the others. He had this vision of being the major company in young media.” But after long negotiations, the deal fell through in December 1986.

* * *

IT JUST WASN’T THE COUPLE’S MINUTE YET; SANDY’S BIG venture had problems, too. Fashion America was launched in April 1986 as a daily show on both the ESPN sports and Lifetime cable networks. During its fast-paced half-hour, the show featured fashion videos and runway footage provided by designers (just as MTV used programming paid for by record companies), interspersed with music videos, interviews, and style tips.

“Suddenly, somehow — stress the irony — Sandy became a player,” says a journalist who covered video. But despite its wide availability and the ministrations of two public relations companies, Fashion America was not renewed for a second season. “She was out of her league,” says someone who worked on the show. The division fizzled when Ohlmeyer moved to Los Angeles. Colleagues say she brushed the whole thing off. “She’s the type who’s got to succeed,” one says. “If her business isn’t going well, she goes on to something else with tremendous energy rather than trying to salvage it. It was clear always that she wanted to travel with the right crowd. Nouvelle society was just beginning.” That became her “something else.” She even started looking like a lady who lunched. A video executive noted the change at a conference in 1986. “Suddenly, there was a new Sandy, behind Chanel armor,” she says.

Meanwhile, it looked like Bob had another winner on his hands. “I didn’t want to turn 60 and still be known as Mr. MTV,” he said in 1987. That April, Quantum Media issued its first product, a home video of a Sugar Ray Leonard-Marvin Hagler prizefight. A year later, Quantum had two shows in national syndication on TV. The Morton Downey Jr. Show created the next Pittman controversy when the host took his new brand of confrontational television nationwide. The Street, Quantum’s second syndicated show, was a brave attempt at TV-verite — a cop show that used tough street language. Pittman was proving his success was no fluke.

But Quantum faltered. Pittman couldn’t assemble the capital he needed to acquire and develop businesses. Takeover attempts against J. Walter Thompson, the NBC radio stations, and a television-station group called TVX failed.

Quantum’s record company, QMI Music, released only one album-by Jimmy Davis and Junction, a Memphis band-and the TV division was shaken when Downey turned up in the papers with a swastika painted on his face. The Street went off the air after only 40 shows, killed by a writers’ strike.

Lots of other projects never got out of development. And Totally Hidden Video, which did make it onto Fox-TV, inspired accusations of plagiarism from Candid Camera creator Allen Funt, who had previously pitched a movie about himself to Quantum’s film division. The division was run by two film executives in Los Angeles, Mary Anne Page and Daniel Rogosin. “Bob Pittman told us he had been tapped to create the Universal Studios of the nineties, encompassing interactive television, records, and film,” Rogosin says. “There is a difference between what we were told and reality.” Quantum’s executives seemed indecisive. That was because Pittman was already talking to his former mentor, Warner chairman Steve Ross, about coming back home.

Their first discussions were in December 1988. In February 1989, the rumor that Pittman was leaving Quantum for Warner turned up in Liz Smith’s column. Nobody said anything to the film executives, but suddenly, their phones went cold. In March, they were told the company was closing. Pittman called Page after the separation was a fact. “I can get you a job with Quincy Jones,” he said.

The deal was delayed by the controversy surrounding the merger of Time Inc. and Warner, but finally, last March 22, the new entity announced that Pittman would head its unit for business and strategic development and entrepreneurial ventures. “He has a new idea every second,” Steve Ross has said of the young man some think he sees as his heir apparent.

Meanwhile, the Pittmans were acting like couple-of-the-minute contenders. Sandy told HG she spent a lot of time organizing her and Bob’s busy life. She arranged lavish parties like an Elvis Presley-theme Halloween do they threw in Connecticut. Guests who’d dressed as the singer and his wife, Priscilla, arrived to find the name ELVIS spelled out in big letters made of Jell-O, and a record-your-voice trailer parked nearby. P.R. woman Susan Blond and her husband, real-estate agent Roger Erickson, were impressed by a smaller scale production. “We were macrobiotic, so Sandy cooked a vegetable dinner herself,” Blond says. “She made eighteen different varieties of mushrooms.”

* * *

BUT SANDY ISN’T JUST PLAYING house. She is also involved with charities that are more socially acceptable than downtown fashion shows for Ethiopian relief. And there area lot of admirers on that benefit circuit. Meredith (Mrs. Tom) Brokaw, the chairwoman of the Coro center’s board, says she quickly noted Sandy’s intelligence, enthusiasm, and extensive connections.

As a board member, a participant in Toro’s mentor program, and a chairwoman of several dinners, Brokaw says, Pittman has proved herself “just a really hard worker, organized, with a lot of energy and a lot of what you look for in leadership.” Last year, Brokaw and her daughters traveled with Sandy to the Himalayas and came away even more impressed. “I really admire her spunk and spirit,” Brokaw says. “This was no princess out on a hike.”

Sandy is also very involved with the women’s tour group of the Central Park Conservancy. “Sandy’s pioneered tours in the north end of the park,” says a Conservancy staff member. “She even helped plan a park luncheon where she served edible park plants. She’s really sort of regular. She’s really got everything, and they’ve made it fast. She’s mink-and-manure. Catty comments can result.”

Beth Rudin DeWoody, who met the Pittmans two years ago, agrees. “Our agendas have changed,” she says. “The eighties were the go-go years. If Sandy is symbolic of the nineties, it’s because she’s committed to doing good.” A day later, DeWoody calls back. “Sandy’s not for sale,” she says. “She only works for what she truly believes in. People like her because she’s full of good ideas. And Sandy and Bob are always supportive of whatever I do. They donate money to a lot of charities.”

Bob gives his time, too. He’s chairman of the board of the New York Shakespeare Festival and a director of the One to One Foundation, a group that works with underprivileged children. Philanthropy and business mix in the latter case. Pittman was brought into the foundation by Raymond Chambers, an entrepreneur who reportedly just sold a piece of his Six Flags amusement parks to Pittman’s Time Warner unit.

“One can’t blame them for getting involved,” says Ken Lerer, a partner in Robinson, Lake, Lerer & Montgomery, a public relations firm. Lerer is another former colleague of Bob’s. “Photographers and glitz are baggage that come along with involvement,” he continues. “I know how much time they spend. They ask me for contributions all the time. For anybody to criticize that is repugnant when you have page-one stories in the New York Times talking about apathy on the rise. They shouldn’t be criticized. People should say thanks.”

But that’s not what everyone says. When Sandy was a cochairwoman of a benefit for Gay Men’s Health Crisis to celebrate Arista Records’ fifteenth anniversary, there were many disagreements and hard feelings. People involved with the evening are still furious, claiming Sandy did little after the initial meetings. Friends say she objected to the way the event was being run. Critics point out that she was listed in the benefit’s glossy program as contributing $25,000 to the evening when in fact she gave only a fraction of that-about $3,000. Geoffrey Knox, a spokesman for G.M.H.C., says that the $25,000 figure includes cash and “in kind” credit for her professional contributions.

* * *

“I’M AWED AND APPALLED BY THE INTENSITY of their desire to climb,” says a journalist who has known the Pittmans since the MTV years. Roger Altman strongly disagrees. The 44-year-old vice-chairman of The Blackstone Group got to know Pittman when his company backed several of Quantum’s acquisition attempts. “Bob is an ambitious guy, but so am I and most people I know,” Altman says. “Bob is not differentiated by ambition or hunger. Actually, Bob’s kind of laid-back.”

Indeed, most criticisms are directed at Sandy. “She gives him a lot of drive,” says an ex-friend. “She sees where to go and she wants to be there. A lot of that push is her. She sends presents, notes. It’s so calculated.”

Howard Rosenman, a film producer in Los Angeles, got such a present after vacationing with the Pittmans at the Time Warner villa in Acapulco. He and Sandy went parasailing together. Afterward, they convinced the very Democratic group back at the house that they’d met Dan and Marilyn Quayle and invited them back to the villa for drinks.

“It escalated into madness,” Rosenman says. “We got so into it we couldn’t get out. I asked Sandy, `What are we going to do?'”

At 5:45, just before the Quayles were due to arrive, a note, supposedly from the vice-president, was delivered to the house begging off but inviting Pittman and Rosenman to the White House. “We never let on that it was a joke,” Rosenman says. “Sandy then sent me the note, framed.”

Rosenman became an unabashed admirer. “They’re very unpretentious people,” he argues. “Very refreshingly honest. They like successful people, but who doesn’t? And who isn’t a social climber in New York except some homeless people?”

©1990 Michael Gross