Jamie Kellner, one of the last original Fox Broadcasting Co. executives at the weblet, is leaving his post as president-chief operating officer after nearly seven years in the job.

Kellner, who took that title in February 1986–months before Fox launched with late night strip “The Late Show” and more than a year before its first prime time pro-gram–has been named to Fox Inc.’s board of directors and said he’s uncertain what his next step will be, other than some sort of entrepreneurial venture. He leaves a few weeks before Fox reaches the plateau of occasionally offering seven nights a week of programming.

No replacement has been announced for Kellner. One scenario to fill the void would call for expanding Twentieth TV chair Lucie Salhany’s responsibilities to include Fox Broadcasting. Twentieth encompasses domestic and international TV production and distribution but not FBC.

Fox Inc. exec VP-chief operating officer Chase Carey, whose responsibilities include overseeing the Fox station group, is another candidate for a greater role in the wake of Kellner’s departure.

Speculation also extended to Steve Bell, who Salhany brought aboard as president of Twentieth TV’s network arm last spring; Kevin O’Brien, general manager of Bay Area Fox affiliate KTVU; and Preston Padden, Fox’s senior VP of affiliates. An official announcement is expected shortly, possibly as soon as today.

The timing is awkward–just before Fox’s scheduled day with visiting TV critics and, more significantly, the National Assn. of Television Program Executives convention later this month. Sources say the move was dictated by Kellner, and the announcement apparently was delayed until a deal with a replacement could be set.

Kellner’s exit follows a series of executive changes at Fox, including the recent shift of Peter Chernin to head the feature side and promotion of Sandy Grushow, who reported to Kellner, to replace Chernin as president of the Fox Entertainment Group.

Kellner suggested that his incentive for moving on is an evolution of his job into a maintenance position as opposed to the growth mode Fox was in through its early years. “This company is now mature,” he said.

The replacement named by Fox chairman Rupert Murdoch may also reflect his goal of greater involvement in all areas of the company, which many believe has been achieved through his appointments at the studio’s movie wing since former Fox Inc. chairman Barry Diller left.

Kellner denied rumors of strained relations between Twentieth TV and Fox Broadcasting, and discounted speculation that it had a bearing on his decision.

Rather Kellner, 45, said he had wanted for more than a year to seek a new challenge but agreed to stay on for an extended period after the sudden departure of Diller last February.

“I want to start something new, either with (Murdoch) or something else,” Kellner added, noting that the idea of some sort of venture backed by Murdoch hadn’t been ruled out. He dismissed, however, longstanding rumors that he might end up teaming with former Twentieth syndication chief Michael Lambert and said there were no plans to reunite with Diller in his new capacity at QVC Network Inc.

Diller, asked to comment on Kellner’s role in the weblet’s inception, called the exec “an important piece in the handful of pieces that created Fox … without which the company would not have been created.”

Primarily a syndication executive during stints at Orion and Viacom before joining Fox, Kellner was valuable in cementing station relationships and holding together the loose coalition of independents that eventually grew into what’s called (inaccurately, in the FCC’s eyes) “the Fox network.”

“Because of his background with stations, he really put together the network in the beginning,” said Garth Ancier, Fox’s first programming chief, who started in spring 1986 along with Scott Sassa, Kevin Wendle, David Johnson, John Lazarus , David Hilton and research exec Andrew Fessel, the only remaining member of that group.

Kellner served at times as a buffer between Diller and the 20-something group of executives that launched Fox and proved himself a savvy salesman, both to advertisers and stations. “He was the biggest cheerleader,” one former Fox exec said.

“More than anyone else, he kept the affiliates in line and enthusiastic,” said Brad Turell, Fox’s senior VP of specials, who joined the weblet as head of publicity shortly after the initial executive group.

Diller, for his part, noted in the early days that everyone had to help out in areas such as sales and affiliate relations but that Kellner led the charge there “because he was better at it.” Kellner also served as the point man in dealing with press and various other functions that may have been less to Diller’s taste.

In addition, Kellner spearheaded the creation of the Fox Children’s Network, an affiliate-driven effort that currently offers 19 hours of animated programming a week, more than Fox schedules in prime time. That venture, observers note, grew out of Kellner’s syndication background, as he perceived a void in the market that was being dominated and dictated to by Disney with its animated fare.

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