Fox Restructuring Elevates Rice as Liguori Exits

Mar 12, 2009  •  Post A Comment

Rupert Murdoch has tapped Fox Searchlight movie whiz Peter Rice to run Fox Broadcasting—a left-field choice that is already prompting speculation that Mr. Murdoch may be grooming Mr. Rice for an even bigger job in the long-term.
In the short term, the appointment has displaced Peter Liguori, the well-liked executive who, until Thursday, had been chairman of Fox Broadcasting. Fox has been the No. 1 network in adults 18-49 throughout most of Mr. Liguori’s four-year tenure at the network, making his firing all the more unexpected.
The move of Mr. Rice to the Fox network was part of a broader, post-Peter Chernin organizational restucturing announced Thursday afternoon by Mr. Murdoch.
On the TV side, Fox Networks Group Chairman Tony Vinciquerra, chairman of the Fox Networks Group, has now been given complete operating control of Fox’s TV networks business. He adds oversight of Fox network programming—i.e., Mr. Rice reports to him—to a portfolio that already included the business aspects of Fox Broadcasting, the Fox cable networks and Fox International Channels.
The studio equation has also changed at News Corp., though not as dramatically.
As had been expected for weeks, 20th Century Fox TV Chairmen Gary Newman and Dana Walden—who had previously reported to Mr. Chernin—will now report to Fox Filmed Entertainment co-chairs Jim Gianopulos and Tom Rothman. In addition to new bosses, Mr. Newman and Ms. Walden will also gain oversight of another unit within the company: Fox TV Studios, headed by Emiliano Calemzuk, who now reports to them.
While other conglomerates, including Disney and NBC Universal, have been moving toward consolidation of their network and studio units, the News Corp. restructuring underlined that company’s desire to maintain distinct network and studio businesses (though 20th will continue to serve as Fox’s primary source of programming). Indeed, with different executives now in charge of the studio and network—Mr. Chernin once controlled both—it’s possible 20th and Fox Broadcasting could find themselves at odds more often than in the past.
What had Hollywood buzzing Thursday, however, was the decision to put Mr. Rice in charge of the Fox network.
Given the extraordinary challenges and headaches associated with running a broadcast network in 2009, it seems unlikely that Mr. Rice was lobbying hard to leave his comfortable position acquiring and producing Oscar-worthy motion picture fare such as “Slumdog Millionaire” and “Little Miss Sunshine.”
Instead, it seems more likely that Mr. Murdoch decided he wanted to give Mr. Rice experience in another key portion of his business. “If you’re thinking of giving someone a role like Peter Chernin had, you want them to have had done a number of big jobs,” one industry insider said of Mr. Murdoch’s possible thought process.
That’s one reason former NBC chief Bob Wright plucked Jeff Zucker from that network’s news division and sent him packing to Burbank. Mr. Zucker wasn’t an obvious choice to run NBC Entertainment, but Mr. Wright was grooming Mr. Zucker—who now heads up all of NBC Universal—for bigger things.
Other News Corp. insiders said it was much too soon to be talking about Mr. Rice as a possible replacement for Mr. Chernin, particularly since the question of who will eventually succeed Mr. Murdoch remains unsettled.
Of course, in addition to possibly preparing Mr. Rice for a bigger role within News Corp., there could be an even simpler reason to put him in charge of Fox Broadcasting.
The British-born Mr. Rice and Australian native Mr. Murdoch have a 20-year-plus relationship. With the network business in major flux, and trusted deputy Mr. Chernin out of the picture, Mr. Murdoch may have just wanted a certain comfort factor with his big-picture network programming chief.
Add in reports from News Corp. insiders suggesting that Mr. Liguori and Mr. Vinciquerra had a sometimes strained relationship, and suddenly, Mr. Liguori’s exit doesn’t seem a complete shocker.
Officially, Mr. Murdoch described the appointment of Mr. Rice as geared toward reinventing his network business.
“Peter Rice is one of our most talented creative executives, having championed such films as ‘Slumdog Millionaire,’ ‘Little Miss Sunshine’ and ‘Juno’ during his tenure at Fox Searchlight,” Mr. Murdoch said. “As we increasingly look to apply unconventional approaches to our traditional businesses, I’m convinced Peter Rice is the right person to transform our broadcast television business.”
As for Mr. Liguori, who joined Fox in 2005, Mr. Murdoch called him “an outstanding Fox executive, not only in leading FBC for three seasons, but in his groundbreaking programming that helped build FX into a general entertainment leader.”
The other key Fox figure impacted by Thursday’s restructuring—but who wasn’t mentioned in any of News Corp.’s press releases—is Fox Entertainment President Kevin Reilly.
Mr. Reilly was recruited to Fox by Mr. Liguori and Mr. Chernin in 2007, reuniting a trio that had successfully worked together at Fox’s FX cable network. Mr. Liguori and Mr. Reilly had a very close working relationship, and Mr. Reilly now suddenly finds himself reporting to an executive he barely knows.
That doesn’t mean Thursday’s changes are bad news for Mr. Reilly.
As several TV industry insiders noted, Mr. Rice has virtually no experience in the day-to-day operations of network TV. That could put a premium on Mr. Reilly’s experience as a development executive.
What’s more, Mr. Rice is known for trumpeting quality projects with strong pedigrees. Mr. Reilly is also known for his upscale tastes.
However, with Mr. Reilly’s current deal up in mid-2010, now might be a good time for Mr. Reilly and his representatives to broach the idea of an new or extended agreement, several insdustry types said.
Meanwhile, one part of the News Corp. TV kingdom not impacted by the restructuring: Roger Ailes—who oversees Fox News Channel, Fox Business Network, the Fox Television Stations and Twentieth Television—continues to report directly to Mr. Murdoch.
[8:30 p.m.: updated throughout]


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