Brenner and Chao form new team

NEW YORK — Barry Diller has created a co-presidency at USA Networks, elevating Stephen Brenner from his post as executive VP and chief operating officer, and hiring Stephen Chao, who worked with Diller at Fox in the 1980s.

Brenner and Chao will in effect replace Kay Koplovitz, who has resigned as chairman and CEO of USA Networks, although a company statement says she will continue in her job during a “transition period,” which is “currently being discussed.”

Chao (Daily Variety, April 13) will be in charge of programming and marketing, and will operate out of USA’s offices in Los Angeles, where he has worked since 1993 as head of his own company producing shows for the networks and the major studios.

Brenner will continue to work out of New York and take over advertising, sales, affiliate relations, finance and administration.

“I’ve asked Rod Perth to stay on” as president of entertainment for USA Networks, says Chao. Perth, who formerly reported to Koplovitz, will report to Chao in the new arrangement. Perth still has more than three years to go on his contract. But one insider says Perth will almost certainly leave well before that expiration date.

Chao said he has no timetable or mandate for programming USA Network and its sibling, the Sci-Fi Channel. “But I love to produce original programming, and I want to bring interesting voices to the schedule” he said. Chao had high praise for USA’s firstrun hourlong action series “La Femme Nikita,” which has harvested solid Nielsens over the past six months.

The USA Network is on a roll, finishing No. 1 among all cable networks in primetime during the first quarter of 1998 with a 2.6 rating, way ahead of No. 2 TNT, which averaged a 2.1 rating.

USA’s ad revenues will jump from $351 million in 1997 to a projected $389 million this year, which is fourth among all cable networks, behind TBS, ESPN and Nickelodeon. USA’s license fees from cable operators will climb from $300 million last year to the $328 million forecast for 1998, which is third behind ESPN and TNT, according to Paul Kagan Associates.

However, its projected cash flow for 1998 of $180 million is only half that of Nickelodeon and ESPN, and well behind that of TNT, CNN, MTV, TBS and Discovery.

Brenner, 48, says he has worked with Diller since Diller’s HSN Inc. bought USA Networks late last year. Continuity is what Brenner said he brings to his new job. “I’ve spent the last 16 years at USA, and my office was right next door to Kay’s,” Brenner said.

Before joining USA Networks in 1982, Brenner was VP of administration and general counsel for the North American Soccer League from 1978-82. Earlier, he was in private practice and worked as an attorney for the Madison Square Garden Corp.

The most recent project put together by Chao, 42, was a sitcom pilot he produced for Columbia TriStar TV and CBS called “Local Zeros,” starring Dave Coulier and Pat Finn and directed by Robby Benson. It’s a candidate for CBS’ fall schedule.

Chao has also produced programs for ABC, NBC, Universal TV and Nickelodeon, and has launched two Latin American channels with the Cisneros TV Group: Locomotion, a 24-hour cartoon channel, and a Spanish-language Playboy Channel.

From 1983-92, Chao served in various executive positions at Rupert Murdoch’s News Corp., including president of the Fox TV stations and president of Fox News. Chao is widely credited with creating and developing “America’s Most Wanted,” “Cops” and “Studs.”

Murdoch fired Chao in June 1992 after a disastrous incident at Aspen, Colo., during a News Corp. management meeting. At a panel on “Capitalism and Culture,” Chao was addressing a gathering of dignitaries including Secretary of Defense Richard Cheney when a man got up in front of the podium, stripped to the buff, and then put his clothes back on.

Chao had staged the display as a comment on free expression, but Murdoch was not amused, “terminating” Chao “for inap-propriate and unauthorized behavior.”

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