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Adalian Column: Liguori Deserved Better, Even If Rice Is Good for Fox

Murdoch’s Move May Prove Unnecessarily Risky in Tough Times

Rupert Murdoch may be a master of the universe, but that doesn’t mean he always makes the right call.

Spending $5.4 billion to buy the Wall Street Journal just months before the newspaper business all but collapsed? Doesn’t seem such a genius move these days.

Rupert Murdoch

Rupert Murdoch

The purchase was supposed to help turn Fox Business Channel into a real rival to CNBC. But so far, even an abundance of attractive blonde anchorbabes hasn’t been enough to put Fox Business on anyone’s cultural radar.

I fear Mr. Murdoch may have made another mistake earlier this month when he decided to unceremoniously dump Peter Liguori in order to install film executive Peter Rice as chairman of the Fox network.

This is a critical time in the history of broadcast television. Massive changes are reshaping the business, and networks that can boast stability in their executive suites have an advantage over their peers—just ask the folks at the top-rated CBS.

But Mr. Murdoch threw away that stability when he decided Mr. Rice, who clearly has a bright future ahead of him at News Corp., needed to spend some time toiling on the TV kibbutz.

Such a move might have been low-risk a decade ago, when the network TV business was far less challenged and the stakes seemed not quite so high. But rolling the dice on a TV novice these days seems a needless gamble, even for a notorious risk-taker such as Mr. Murdoch.

In case Mr. Murdoch hasn’t noticed, Fox is about to finish another season as the No. 1 network in adults 18-49. And while much of that is due to the success of “American Idol,” Mr. Liguori had been quietly building a strong stable of successful series to surround the omnipresent singing competition.

Peter Liguori

Peter Liguori

“Lie to Me” and “Fringe” are shaping up to be solid performers in a season that has seen hardly any new hits. “Bones” has brought life to Fox’s Thursday lineup, while “Hell’s Kitchen”—from reality wizard Mike Darnell’s nation-state within the Fox empire—has become an unscripted dynamo for the network.

Fox also has two of the most anticipated series of the fall with “Family Guy” spinoff “The Cleveland Show” and Ryan Murphy’s ambitious musical comedy “Glee.”

Mr. Murdoch’s response to all this? Sack the quarterback who led Team Fox down a winning path.

This is not to suggest that Mr. Rice is somehow a disaster in waiting.

By all accounts, he is a whip-smart executive, a quick study and a relatively humble guy. “Rice diligently avoids the spotlight: He never plays the scene-stealer,” my former boss at Variety, Peter Bart, wrote recently.

Equally key to Fox’s future is the fact that Mr. Rice is surrounded by solid executives above and below him.

He reports to Tony Vinciquerra, a low-key, high-I.Q. industry veteran who’s well prepared for the many headaches networks face in the years ahead. And Mr. Rice oversees Fox Entertainment President Kevin Reilly, whose taste and passion have helped produce some of the decade’s finest TV shows (among them HBO’s “The Sopranos”).

The importance of two other key Fox executives—Mr. Darnell and scheduling chief Preston Beckman—shouldn’t be ignored, either. They are two of the pillars of Fox’s success during the past decade.

Peter Rice

Peter Rice

But while this strong stable of executive talent may have made it easier for Mr. Murdoch to cavalierly dismiss Mr. Liguori, it doesn’t erase the fact that Mr. Rice has an enormous learning curve ahead of him. Or that the steady hand of Mr. Liguori has been replaced by the uncertainty and caution Mr. Rice likely will exercise as he attempts to soak in the TV business.

Beyond the business implications of Mr. Murdoch’s move, what’s particularly troubling about what happened to Mr. Liguori is what it says about the (un-) importance of loyalty and job performance within News Corp.

During his 13 years working for Mr. Murdoch, Mr. Liguori proved his worth time and again. He was key to launching Fox Sports Net, transformed FX into an original-programming powerhouse and kept the Fox network on top at a time of enormous turmoil in the broadcast world.

What’s more, Mr. Liguori helped nourish the careers of some of Mr. Murdoch’s most valuable employees. FX chief John Landgraf, Mr. Reilly, Fox development chief Matt Cherniss and Fox marketing boss Joe Earley all got major boosts from Mr. Liguori.

At most Hollywood companies, abysmal failure is rewarded with a sweet exit package or a hefty production deal. Mr. Liguori’s years of service—and success—were repaid with a few kindly written sentences in a press release and a sudden kick out the door.

Mr. Liguori isn’t talking about his exit from Fox, at least for now. His silence, even in the face of insult, is typical of the no-nonsense, kid-from-the-Bronx attitude he brought to his high-powered Hollywood gig.

If he were speaking, however, I’m willing to bet Mr. Liguori wouldn’t be wasting much time whining about what happened to him. I could even imagine the die-hard baseball fan paraphrasing Tom Hanks’ classic line from “A League of Their Own.”

“There’s no crying!” he might say. “There’s no crying in television!”

That doesn’t mean those of us who love the TV business can’t be just a little bit sad over the shabby treatment of one of the industry’s good guys.

Comments (3)

I agree 100%. Peter Liguori is a solid a TV executive as they come...not to mention a terrific guy, with an eye for and ability to nurture a hit. The good news is, with so many companies stumbling, one is bound to pick Peter up. Then, I hope he kicks Murdoch's butt!

ck:

I used to see him on the Fox lot alot -- just a good guy who made things happen. Very personable. The kind of person you wanted to work for, because you just knew... He will be missed very much. Wherever you're at Mr. Liguori, just know you're one of the good ones... and even though I'm lucky enough to still have a job in television, I'd send my resume to you in a new york minute (smile).

ck

Another Opinion:

What did he really do at Fox? Seems that Fringe and Lie To Me (which aren't actually doing THAT great) were because of Kevin Reilly. The other shows you mention are on the air because of either Gail Berman or Mike Darnell. So what did he really accomplish in his years at Fox? Plus, he is not as great of a guy as you made him sound. Plenty of people have seen "other" sides of him so maybe Murdoch actually did the smart and right thing. There is such thing as karma and in this case it actually worked...

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