Fox looks to fill lot’s top spot

Fox Broadcasting Co. will reportedly shop around a bit before naming a successor to Fox Entertainment Group president Peter Chernin, with second-in-command Sandy Grushow said to top the short list of candidates.

Grushow, 32, has served as exec VP of the Fox Entertainment Group since July 1991, overseeing current programming, scheduling and advertising, marketing and promotion. He began his career in advertising at Fox’s film wing.

If he were given the job, Grushow would be the youngest exec to hold such a post since then-31-year-old Brandon Tartikoff became president of NBC Entertainment in 1981.

The primary outside candidate would appear to be Chris Albrecht, the head of HBO Independent Prods., which has become Fox’s leading supplier, producing “Roc, “”Martin,””The Ben Stiller Show” and midseason entry “Down the Shore” for the weblet.

HBO also is involved in developing a sitcom pilot for Fox starring Richard Lewis and Don Rickles for next season.

Said to be heading Fox’s wish list of other contenders are Leslie Moonves, the prez of Lorimar TV, and Bob Crestani, head of TV for the William Morris Agency, both of whom also have been discussed inconnection with top network positions. Neither, however, has been contacted yet or is expected to be interested in the post.

A Fox spokesman said the company is “evaluating the situation” and that a replacement would be announced at a later date. The studio also expressed confidence in the current management team, including Fox Broadcasting Co.’s president/chief operating officer, Jamie Kellner, and Grushow.

Kellner oversees all operations at FBC–affiliate relations, sales, cable and regulatory issues–but comes from a syndication background and isn’t expected to expand his role to fill the void left in the creative ranks. Fox Entertainment Group handles programming matters.

The uncertainty brought about by yesterday’s announcement comes at an inopportune time for Fox Broadcasting, which is undergoing growing pains as it expands to new nights. Fox is also in the midst of deciding what projects it will order as pilot candidates for next season.

It had long been known that Chernin is highly regarded by Fox Inc. chief Rupert Murdoch and had a handshake deal on a three-year contract extension at Fox Broadcasting (Daily Variety, Aug. 11).

His previous deal lapsed last March, but an official extension was held up, in part due to Barry Diller’s sudden announcement in February that he was resigning as chairman and CEO of Fox Inc.

One reason for the delay in finalizing that deal may have been Chernin’s anticipation that he would have a crack at the movie post. “He wanted that (the film job) all along,” one source noted.

Murdoch’s admiration for Chernin fueled speculation about an inevitable promotion, along with reports of political tension at the studio. Under Chernin, for example, Fox Broadcasting has recently taken steps to form its own in-house production division, perceived in some quarters as a slap at Twentieth TV (Daily Variety, Oct. 27).

Even late last week some well-placed sources were still discounting talk about Chernin heading the film operation, saying Fox Broadcasting is too important to Murdoch’s long-term plans to risk moving its top programmer to the studio’s feature side, particularly with FBC at a pivotal juncture as it attempts to expand to seven nights of programming a week.

Others observed that Chernin, like Brandon Tartikoff at NBC, is a smooth political operator who is leaving Fox Broadcasting at the right time–having piloted Fox through years of enormous success, with few mountains left to climb and some growing pains starting to appear.

Like many Diller hires, the choice of Chernin was considered surprising when he was named president of the Fox Entertainment Group in February 1989, having been away from network TV since an early stint at the David Gerber Co.

During his tenure, however, Chernin has guided Fox through an explosive growth period, highlighted by such audacious gambles as moving “The Simpsons” to Thursday against “The Cosby Show” and introducing new series year-round.

FBC increased its average rating by 25% last season but is down this year (about 3% in households, slightly more among adults 18-49) as it spreads to new nights. Weblet delayed the premiere of its Tuesday lineup, scheduled for October , until December or January and continues to wrestle with bringing any regularity to its Monday movie slot.

There also has been conjecture that one of the Tuesday series, ABC Prods.’ “Class of ’96,” may be drafted for service in the Thursday lineup, replacing the struggling hour “The Heights.” Of this season’s new shows, in fact, only “The Simpsons” lead-out “Martin” has proved a ratings grabber.

Prior to joining Fox, Chernin was president of Lorimar Film Entertainment, involved in such movies as “Dangerous Liaisons,””Running on Empty” and “See You in the Morning.” Before that, he was exec VP of programming at Showtime/The Movie Channel, where high-profile original programming produced during his tenure included “It’s Garry Shandling’s Show” (which was shared with Fox on a delayed basis).

It also bears noting that Chernin had occupied the position as president at one of the prime time services (Fox isn’t technically a network) longer than any of his peers, since February 1989. Robert Iger assumed the analogous job at ABC Entertainment a month later.

Grushow has spent his entire career at Fox Inc., joining studio’s creative advertising department in 1983 after interning there while a UCLA student. He rose to VP creative advertising at 20th Century Fox before going to Fox Broadcasting as senior VP ad-promo in ’88.

The one potential deficiency in Grushow’s resume would be a lack of hands-on development experience, having focused on current programs, scheduling and marketing since moving to FBC.

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