When I was promoted to vice president of audience research at NBC, my first order of business was to put FOX on all our ratings reports. Up until then the little network was dismissed by our senior executives.
For me, this network was making different programming, and more importantly, it was grabbing a significant piece of the 12-34 audience. I still remember coming to work one morning at 30 Rock and looking at the overnights of the “Simpsons” Christmas special. Something was going on.
I always wanted to work at FOX, and when I was asked to come out to be head of scheduling at NBC, I panicked and called a friend over at FOX and asked if there was a way for me to go over there in some capacity so I could stay in New York. It didn’t happen.
As many of you know, I spent this summer telling you all about my years as head of scheduling at NBC during the Must-See-TV era. When I knew my time at the Peacock was coming to an end, the TV Gods answered my prayers: I was approached by FOX to move over there and schedule the network.
That started a 15-year run which equaled the fun and success that I had at NBC. It’s rare you get a second chance like that. I had some amazing bosses over there in Gail Berman, Peter Ligouri and Peter Rice. They remain my friends. I got to know Peter Chernin, and we had lots of fun in the scheduling room. I would supply the sugar, and we were all speeding away in the room for several days.
I had a chance to be part of one of the most dominant shows in the history of television in “American Idol,” and I became a close and good friend with Mike Darnell, who was the king of reality TV and one of the more interesting, offbeat characters ever to occupy an executive suite.
I also got to know Rupert Murdoch. I was always honest with Rupert, and he trusted me to give him a real assessment of what was going on with the network. When he was in L.A. he would often call me up to his office, where he would have his newspapers in front of him. He would edit them between phone calls from powerful people, and once in a while, he would lob a question at me. He was always shockingly open in front of me, and I kept all I heard in confidence.
What I will say is that in all the years I knew Rupert, he always was skeptical of the Hollywood culture. He expected FBC to be profitable separate from the profits we generated for the corporation by nurturing the TV studio’s product on our air. That’s why it didn’t surprise me when FBC was sort of orphaned in this mega-deal with Disney.
So what’s going to happen to FOX? Well, one possibility is that it will be transformed into a sports/information network — not that I know what that means. I don’t know what that means for their affiliated stations or for their retrans deals. No idea. Can the other broadcast networks start poaching the stronger affiliates? Will FOX use the money from the deal to buy more stations?
Currently FOX airs some “legacy” shows like “The Simpsons,” which are loss leaders for the network, but the corporation wanted the negatives. What happens to them once the current deals expire?
Since this deal will take a while to be approved, what happens at this May’s upfront?
If you think about it, there are only about 12 hours out of 168 hours each week impacted by this. Of the 15 hours in primetime, Saturday is now basically sports and Sunday night from 7 to 8 is sports or repeats, so FBC only needs programming for those 12 hours. Everything else is sports, a little bit of FOX News and local programming and syndication.
I still think there might be a partnership — some sort of output/ownership deal with a studio like Sony, Paramount or Lionsgate. Rupert needs the network to amortize the sports properties and to maintain carriage fees, so I think if he sells the network it is part of a deal for FOX Sports and the cable channels.
I just feel that there are more questions than answers and that this isn’t over. Expect at least one other big deal down the road. Rupert will have his news channels and newspapers and there you go … the circle of life.
Maybe next summer, if I’m still writing for TVBTN, I’ll write about my experiences at FOX. But I’ll leave you with one story about Rupert which I do not believe violates any confidences but gives you some insight into how powerful people reduce everything to common sense (Jack Welch at GE was the same way).
A decision was made to renovate the fourth floor where all the FOX programming execs resided. We packed up before Christmas and migrated across the lot to temporary offices. I asked my boss if he had ever told Rupert about this. I was told no and it was in the budget, so why should Rupert be told? I said that when he’s in town he often comes down (he was on the fifth floor) unannounced, and do you want the elevator doors to open and he’s in a tundra? My boss shrugged it off.
One day I get a call from Rupert asking where we are (ta da). I tell him, and he asks me to come over to his office. When I arrive, he wants to know what’s going on and I tell him (without throwing anyone under the bus) that there was a feeling that by redoing the layout of the floor it would lead to a more creative environment. “Well, wouldn’t it be cheaper to hire more creative executives?” was his response.
It’s a sad day for me, but I have to believe Rupert knows what he’s doing, and that he’s not done.