12 to Watch: Peter Liguori

Jan 30, 2006  •  Post A Comment

When Peter Liguori made the transition eight months ago from running the FX cable network to taking charge of the Fox network, he went from greenlighting a select number of new cable series to programming seven nights of original prime-time programming for a Big 6 broadcaster. The change in scale was a sobering experience.

“The single biggest surprise is the absolute volume of it all,” Mr. Liguori said of the switch from cable to broadcast, noting that in one development season he now must sift through hundreds of pitches before picking up a dozen series. “It’s pretty daunting.”

Running a network is one of the toughest jobs in television, but at Fox things get more complicated because of postseason baseball, which in the past has stymied the broadcaster’s ability to launch fall series. Fox’s solution has been to make up the difference with an amazing midseason, which has been achieved, thanks to “American Idol.”

With that kind of season, the first responsibility for Fox staffers is to understand the concept of acceptance, Mr. Liguori said.

“It’s absolutely, positively incumbent that we accept we have baseball for a while, and why you get paid is to take what’s seemingly a challenge and make it an opportunity,” he said.

Last season Fox unsuccessfully sprinkled new series launches in the summer and tried to debut more series after baseball, halfway through the competitive November sweeps. The strategy for 2005-06 was markedly different, Mr. Liguori said, characterizing his strategy as “Let’s launch as much as humanly possible as early as possible to create the deepest relationship as possible.”

“Prison Break” got off to an early start in August, while the rookie drama “Bones” performed along with the second season of the surprise hit “House” in the fall. All three shows strengthened after baseball concluded.

Another challenge for Mr. Liguori is to rein in irrational exuberance over “Idol.” “It’s important in the television business to recognize the power of negative thinking, of how if something can go wrong, it will, and how do you plan for it,” he said.

That theory just got harder to prove. Fox’s real-time drama “24” charged out of the gate for its fifth-season debut Jan. 15 with its highest ratings ever in the demo. And “Idol” started its fifth season with a powerhouse debut Jan. 17 that brought in the series’ best-ever premiere performance. But “Idol,” the network’s savior, could become its downfall if the ratings erode. For Mr. Liguori it’s not a question of if, but when.

“We all have to operate under the realization that every single show has a life cycle,” Mr. Liguori said, noting that he has no interest in changing the “Idol” schedule of running only once a year.

Mr. Liguori is well equipped to handle Fox’s challenges, said John Landgraf, president and general manager of FX Networks.

“One of the things that’s underappreciated about Peter is, for a guy as competitive as he is, and a guy that’s articulate and passionate, he’s extremely respectful,” Mr. Landgraf said. “He really empowers the people who work for him.”

But making sure his staff is focused on the inevitable decline of “Idol” is just one of many concerns Mr. Liguori must tackle.

“There is no time to rest on your laurels,” he said. “All of a sudden one of your competition gets on a hot streak. You better be working to say, ‘The next hot streak, why can’t it be us?'”

At A Glance

Title: President, entertainment, Fox Broadcasting Co.

How long in current position: Since May 2005

Date of birth: July 6, 1960

Place of birth: Bronx, N.Y.

What to watch for: How Mr. Liguori handles Fox’s unique schedule, which includes managing “American Idol” and coming up with new comedy hits

Who knew? During college at Yale in the 1970s, Mr. Liguori grew his hair down to the middle of his back, which did not go over well with his disco-crazed, Italian-American home neighborhood.