Liguori Sees ‘Fluid Transition’

Mar 28, 2005  •  Post A Comment

There’s been a changing of the guard at Fox.

News Corp. made it official last Thursday: Gail Berman, president of entertainment for Fox Broadcasting, stepped down after a five-year run and Peter Liguori, president and CEO of FX Networks, was named as her replacement. Ms. Berman, who is said to be taking the No. 2 position at Paramount Pictures, helped launch Fox shows as varied as the single-camera comedy “Bernie Mac,” which premiered in 2001, and this season’s medical drama “House.”

In his first foray into the broadcast network business, Mr. Liguori will have to jump in head-first. His most pressing responsibilities will be working through the network’s pilots and then preparing for upfronts. But larger issues remain. Grappling with baseball-induced scheduling issues and building momentum with fewer hours of prime time per night than ABC, CBS and NBC are perennial Fox Network challenges.

But he said he expects a “fluid transition” because both Fox and FX are News Corp. companies.

“Eventually it will dawn on us when the hard start date is,” he said of his permanent move to Fox and his last day at FX. Mr. Liguori, who said the offer for the Fox job came in the last “24 to 36 hours” before the Thursday announcement, said he had no knowledge of who would be his replacement at FX, and said it was “completely premature” to discuss any executive changes at Fox.

While at FX Mr. Liguori made a name for himself with the launch of a handful of high-profile, critically acclaimed series that helped redefine the cable network, including “Nip/Tuck,” “The Shield” and “Rescue Me.”

Before joining FX, Mr. Liguori was a marketing executive for News Corp.’s Fox/Liberty Networks and for HBO. A former advertising executive, he also produced the 1996 feature film “Big Night.” With the Fox entertainment presidency, Mr. Liguori will leave behind cable’s more informal, less regulated and more selective premiere schedule to program 15 distinct hours of prime time a week. Rick Rosen, a co-founder of the Endeavor Agency, said Mr. Liguori is up to the challenge.

“He built a cable network from basically a start-up to a network of some stature,” Mr. Rosen said. “I don’t think [running a broadcast network is] insurmountable. He’s smart. He knows how the broadcast business works. He’s been in the Fox family for years.”

Ms. Berman’s departure and Mr. Liguori’s ascension come just two months before the all-important May upfront presentations for advertisers, and right in the middle of pilot production season. Mr. Liguori said now “is a natural place in the cycle” of television, because he can see the finished pilots in the next few weeks without preconceived notions based on how they were pitched or how they read on the page.

“At this stage it will be my job to be an objective, unprejudiced audience member, and just see the show and react,” he said.

Mr. Rosen agreed. “He has less of a vested interest and can be more dispassionate,” he said.

The change comes just after the network’s strong performance in the February sweeps, where the musical reality series “American Idol” helped Fox win the top spot in the adults 18 to 49 ratings demographic.

For the season to date through March 20, Fox is No. 1 in adults 18 to 49 with a 4.1 rating, just ahead of CBS’s 4.0, according to Nielsen Media Research. In adults 18 to 34, the gap is wider: Fox has a 3.8 for the season, while CBS and NBC are tied at No. 2 with 3.1.

Berman’s Stamp

David Nevins, who runs the TV department at Imagine Entertainment, the production company behind Fox’s Emmy-winning single-camera comedy “Arrested Development,” said Ms. Berman’s stamp on the network is clear beyond ratings.

“If you look at the last five years on network television, a very high proportion of the cutting-edge shows were done on Fox,” he said. “That’s Gail’s legacy.”

Ms. Berman was also the first network executive to embrace the concept of the 52-week season, which meant getting out of the habit of launching the lion’s share of shows in September and premiering a select few in January as midseason replacements. Fox scored some notable successes with the strategy, including “The O.C.” in 2003. But last summer, facing increased competition from the Summer Olympics on NBC, the network couldn’t gain much traction with its summer fare.

The 52-week season may be a necessity for Fox considering that the network’s broadcasts of postseason baseball make introducing new series in the fall next to impossible.

Mr. Liguori said the 52-week season is something he is familiar with, and something that makes sense for Fox.

“It works extremely well in cable,” he said. “It proves there is an audience for new, fresh programming all year round. It’s started getting some traction. I hope to continue the momentum.”

Brad Adgate, senior VP and corporate research director for Horizon Media, New York, said one of Ms. Berman’s greatest accomplishments was in showing restraint with arguably Fox’s most important piece of programming.

“She did not overexpose `American Idol,’ which probably would have been a very easy thing to do,” Mr. Adgate said. Unlike tentpole reality shows on other networks, Ms. Berman chose to run only one cycle of “Idol” per year, which observers including Mr. Adgate say has helped Fox fight ratings erosion and in fact increased its performance from last season.

For Mr. Adgate, another legacy of Ms. Berman was coming up with this generation’s teen drama, a Fox staple. But in at least one category where Fox once performed well, the network has not been able to hold on to its dominant position.

“`The O.C.’ was a suitable replacement for `Beverly Hills 90210,’ but she never found one for `Ally McBeal,”‘ he said. “[ABC’s] `Desperate Housewives’ is the heir apparent [to `Ally’].”

Besides dealing with postseason baseball, one television executive who asked not to be named said the president at Fox has another issue to tackle: building network momentum without a 10 p.m. (ET) hour of programming.

“It’s harder for a network that programs only two hours a night,” he said.

With all the public scrutiny, hours of scheduling, intense competition and high failure rate, the executive said, running a network is a daunting prospect.

“I don’t know why anyone in their right mind would want that job,” he said. “It’s just dreadful.”