Murdoch Fils Fires Up Fox Stations

Mar 8, 2004  •  Post A Comment

The acquisition of NBC Enterprises’ “Fear Factor” last week for this fall by the Fox owned-and-operated stations cemented a busy and aggressive month for the station group and Lachlan Murdoch, chairman and CEO of Fox Television Stations.

“Fear Factor” was only the latest target for Mr. Murdoch. He also renewed Sony’s “Seinfeld” and snatched off-network hit “Everybody Loves Raymond” away from the Tribune stations for its second cycle in 2008 and picked up Twentieth’s “Yes, Dear ” all within the past month.

In January 2002 Mr. Murdoch, the oldest son of News Corp. Chairman Rupert Murdoch, was given responsibility for oversight of Fox Television Stations and the company’s 35 owned-and-operated TV stations in the United States. Former CEO and Chairman Mitch Stern departed for DirectTV last year, but the company hasn’t skipped a beat with a flurry of new properties.

TelevisionWeek’s Chris Pursell spoke to Mr. Murdoch last week.

TelevisionWeek: You’ve quickly made some aggressive moves since taking oversight of the station group. How do you view the state of the O&Os right now?

Lachlan Murdoch: Over the past two years, Mitch Stern and I have been working together overseeing the station group, and I’m pleased to say that the current state of our station group is very healthy. Ratings are good, the market feels strong. We’re continuing to pick up market share on top of that.

As a group, we are very well positioned and we like what we see with the duopolies. Most of the cost savings we engineered in our duopolies strategy have been achieved, thanks to a lot of hard work. The next big step is to leverage those duopolies. We’re in the early steps of doing that, particularly on the UPN stations, to guard our market share on those stations.

TVWeek: How do you plan to do that?

Mr. Murdoch: It’s a long-term process of really getting programming right on those stations. Getting those programming pieces in place is really the first step. If you look at some, not all, but some of the duopolies in daytime, it’s hard to launch a show when you really don’t have anything that can give it a strong lead-in.

Our programming and marketing strategies have to be put in place to start seeing some growth. But you can’t expect to put one show in and suddenly expect to see the numbers pop. What we do know is that we’ve grown our market share so aggressively that to go further, there has to be a stronger focus on the UPN stations.

TVWeek: What are some challenges facing the station group?

Mr. Murdoch: We’ve had a lot of success the last few years with market share gains. A key challenge long term is continuing that success. We’re looking for improvement on our UPN duopoly stations, not just in the network performance, but throughout the day, and in Fox prime time as well.

TVWeek: Obviously news has remained an integral part of the stations; how key are these programs in the overall strategy?

Mr. Murdoch: We’re very committed to news and news expansion. This year we’ve expanded 571/2 hours per week, and overall we’re doing over 800 hours of news a week. That’s a lot of news broadcasts to stay on top of and we have to make sure as a group they remain up to our standards. Everyone was under the assumption when we took over the Chris-Craft stations that we would begin cutting back on news, and we proved them wrong by not only keeping the amount of newscasts but actually adding more news.

TVWeek: Fox continues to be successful with its vertical integration strategy; where does Twentieth Television fit into the Fox O&O plans?

Mr. Murdoch: Twentieth plays an important role and one that continues to evolve. But clearly the strategy that Mitch set up before is to use Twentieth and the symbiotic relationship between the two of us to test shows. We’ll continue to launch shows with a slow rollout depending upon the show. Others will go with a wider launch from the start.

Clearly on the duopoly stations where we need off-network programming, Twentieth can play a key role. Having said that, we’ve shown and are proving that we’ll look for content from anyone. We don’t hold out on other distributors just to buy Twentieth product. We identify and go after any product that will work on the stations.

TVWeek: In the past month, we’ve seen Fox renew “Seinfeld,” snag “Raymond” from Tribune and now acquire “Fear Factor.” Are you done or are there other series you’ll look at this spring?

Mr. Murdoch: We wouldn’t want to show our cards, but we are still clearly going to be opportunistic with our schedule in finding the right shows to fit into the schedules. Securing “Seinfield” and acquiring “Raymond” put a lot of other shows in play that I think syndicators would have taken more time to sell, or roll out. So there are a few things that we might look at. Our recent acquisitions should be a clear signal of just how aggressive our strategy is.

Reality fare continues to perform well in syndication on our stations. We expect “Fear Factor” to appeal to viewers in much the same way as “Cops” has. This acquisition, as well as adding “Seinfeld” in another key market-Cleveland-continues our aggressive strategy to secure as much top-notch product as possible .

TVWeek: At NATPE you were busy meeting the other distributors, and had some meetings afterward. What are your thoughts on syndicators and where syndication is right now?

Mr. Murdoch: We obviously went to NATPE with an agenda; “Seinfeld” was going to be very important to us to renew. We started the initial dance with King World on “Raymond,” so it was a good meeting for us because we were able to start the ball rolling on some key strategies that we wrapped up after NATPE. One of the messages I want to get across to syndicators is that we have a completely open mind in terms of their shows.

TVWeek: I want to ask you about cross-promotion between the duopoly markets. That seems to be something the stations did not do until recently, with “On-Air With Ryan Seacrest.” Can we expect more of this strateg?

Mr. Murdoch: It was a very carefully thought-out change in direction and I made it clear to the general managers that we are not suddenly going to start cross-promoting the stations back and forth. You have to be very careful that you don’t confuse the audience and you keep the individual stations’ personalities distinct. Having said that, I think that with the right shows it works, and clearly with “American Idol,” it worked with Ryan. But it is not a sign that we are about to open the floodgates. … It is a sign, however, that we are open-minded and willing to do some creative things for the benefit of both stations.