Testing the Limits: Ron and Linda Devillier

“AND NOW FOR SOMETHING ENTIRELY DIFFERENT.”

According to British comedian and actor Eric Idle, “A few brave men took a risk to allow us to make ‘Monty Python.’ One in particular took the biggest risk to put it on American television.” In a personal note, Idle writes about Hilton Head Island resident Ron Devillier: “His inspired bravery to take an obscure, late-night BBC show and put it on public television was the catalyst that led to Monty Python quietly subverting America.”

“Bringing the Pythons to America became my signature,” said Devillier, who leapt from program manager at KERA-TV in Dallas to vice president of programming at PBS in 1977. In that role, he continued to test the limits, such as featuring the Grand Ole Opry during the network’s annual fundraising drive as opposed to more esoteric fare. “The Grand Ole Opry wound up becoming the most successful fundraising event of the decade,” he said.

In 1980, Devillier founded a television production and distribution company, Devillier Donegan Enterprises, with his equally irreverent partner, Brian Donegan. 

“We wanted to help independent producers find an American audience and we loved comedy,” said Devillier. “We followed our first major client, ‘Monty Python,’ with ‘Mr. Bean.’ We sought out originals and focused on a good story.”

DDE prospered and was purchased by ABC and then Disney. “We produced films with HBO, Showtime, Granada Television, Canal Plus, NHK Television and the BBC. DDE became the gold standard for non-fiction programming, producing the highly respected and Emmy award-winning nature series ‘Living Edens’ as well as the ‘Empires’ series, which received a Peabody,” he said.   

Linda Devillier met Ron while working at PBS. She shared his interest in public broadcasting and subsequently served as director of communications at WGBH-TV Boston, where she had the good fortune of working with Julia Child, who was “warm, witty and totally genuine.”

When Frank Mankiewicz became president of National Public Radio, he invited Linda to join his “merry band and help put this little network on the map.” As director of national promotions, she created and supervised scores of NPR campaigns, including the launch of “Morning Edition” and NPR’s six-part “Star Wars” series featuring Mark Hamill and John Lithgow.

“(George) Lucas gave NPR the radio broadcast rights to the series for a very modest fee,” she said, smiling. “It was a grand adventure working with the Lucas film team.”

In 1984, Linda founded Devillier Communications, Inc., an independent public relations firm in Washington, D.C. Over the next 25 years, her clients included The Annenberg School of Communications, Time-Life, Comcast, PBS, HBO, IMAX, The Washington Post, best-selling author Tom Peters, National Geographic, Kiplinger Washington Editors, Congressional Quarterly, The Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, NASA, Lockheed Martin, the National Science Foundation and scores of major D.C. law firms.

“Our firm was a bit of anomaly,” she said. “We never lobbied. We were more like a New York agency. We were recognized for strategic planning and successful communications efforts. Our focus was the entertainment industry, healthcare, education, science and the environment.”

In 1986, DCI was selected by John Hendricks to work with his new cable network, the Discovery Channel. Over the next decade, thanks to Hendricks’ programming genius and innovative marketing campaigns, Discovery became one of America’s most well-respected brands.

Linda’s face lights up when she talks about another favorite project, Space Day, an educational outreach program designed to inspire students to pursue STEM careers via the excitement of space. Underwritten by Lockheed Martin, a key strategy was the National Partnership Program created by Linda and her team. Former astronaut and U.S. Sen. John Glenn agreed to serve as co-chairman of Space Day. NASA was an initial partner. 

“NASA provided entrée to Sally Ride and other astronauts and scientists who actively participated in the campaign,” Linda said.   

Space Day benefited from the collaborative support of more than 70 prestigious educational, scientific organizations, including six major U.S. school districts.

“It was a classic loaves and fishes story. We found like-minded individuals and organizations who wanted to motivate young people to explore STEM education.”  

On the first Tuesday in May, for almost a decade, DCI conducted a national Space Day celebration at the Smithsonian’s National Air & Space Museum. The event featured Glenn, Ride, congressional and educational leaders as well as winning Space Day  student teams from across the country. 

“Thanks to our national partnership network, we were able to also focus attention on educational activities in every state of the Union. I truly believe Space Day encouraged thousands of young people to pursue STEM-related careers,” said Linda. “And, who knows, maybe a few of them may even visit Mars one day.”