The Agent Behind Dan Rather's Big Bucks Has a Stable of TV News Clients
Such bleary-eyed dedication may suggest an insatiable appetite for current events but, in fact, Leibner is less interested in the news than he is in the people who deliver it on the air. Perhaps the leading talent agent in the TV news business, he negotiates contracts for such network stars as Morley Safer, Ed Bradley and Jessica Savitch and more than 100 other anchormen and women, reporters, producers and directors. As news programs like 60 Minutes and its imitators have become so successful, Leibner, 41, has played a key role in bringing the salary scales of broadcast journalists to stratospheric levels.
So far Leibner's most spectacular coup has been the contract he negotiated for Dan Rather to replace Walter Cronkite as anchorman on the CBS Evening News. Leibner is discreet about the money involved: When the reported $8 million over five years is mentioned, he merely smiles. Leibner is also quick to share the credit. "I was instrumental in the deal we worked out," he allows, "but I'm not a puppeteer. Dan has always had the skill to go to the top; he's a heck of a journalist." Rather's on-camera presence and credibility, in Leibner's view, made him the obvious choice.
In the TV scramble for audience shares, even local anchormen in major cities can command salaries of a quarter million dollars. Leibner says no apologies are due for the emergence of the newsman as celebrity. "Athletes, movie stars and quiz show players are making more than they used to," he observes. "Getting information is more important than a sitcom. It's a laissez-faire society. Nobody is putting a gun to anybody's head." Leibner's major weapon is an energetic persuasiveness—"I am not an angry shouter"—and this is fully appreciated by clients and adversaries alike. "Richard is personable, honest, and he remembers his commitments," says ABC News VP David Burke, who has often negotiated with Leibner. "Richard is a lovely man," offers Rather's 60 Minutes colleague Mike Wallace, "and for an agent that is extraordinary." His son Chris Wallace, at rival NBC, is also a client. He points out that Leibner "knows what everyone is making. So when he negotiates he knows what's fair. He thinks fast and talks long until he wears people down."
"I always had a big mouth," admits Leibner, who regrets that he never applied to law school. Instead he earned degrees in accounting and taxation at the University of Rochester and New York University before joining his father's tax firm in Manhattan. A chance meeting with insurance agent Nate Bienstock in 1964 led first to a partnership and later to Leibner buying out the firm on his partner's retirement. Today N.S. Bienstock Inc. has become one of the top agencies specializing in broadcast news people. Leibner's usual fee is something less than 10 percent.
When the business started expanding five years ago, Leibner's wife of 16 years, Carole Cooper, a former producer of TV commercials, was pressed into service. Carole, 39, now watches over her own brood of 40 or so local newscasters covering all the major markets from Boston to San Francisco. Richard himself tends to the network stars. "This shop works as hard for a small client as it does for a big one," notes Stuart Witt, an ex-CBS attorney who joined the Leibner team this spring. "We're dealing with highly intelligent journalists, not booking a seal act into the Palladium."
Through careful coordination of their work schedules (and full-time help), the Leibners are able to spend time with their sons, Adam, 13, and Jonathan, 10. In every season but the dead of winter, the family regularly escapes to nearby Fire Island to a bayside cottage. Even there, however, the parents often spend part of the weekend looking at videotapes from aspiring newscasters. By now Leibner is a genius at recognizing on-camera charisma, but he harbors no illusion of becoming an anchorman himself. "Could any of the great Hollywood agents of the past," he asks rhetorically, "play the role of Errol Flynn?"