Herzog out-Foxed

Web's topper ankles after just 15 months

Just 15 months after taking over as prexy of Fox Entertainment, Doug Herzog ankled the web Wednesday, bringing to a close another turbulent chapter in the history of Fox programming chiefs.

Regency Television topper Gail Berman– one of the driving forces behind Fox’s midseason laffer “Malcolm in the Middle” — is considered a strong contender to replace Herzog. However, Fox sources insist no serious discussions have taken place with Berman and that several other candidates are also in the running for the post.

DreamWorks TV topper Dan McDermott had also been mentioned as a candidate. McDermott’s contract is up this summer. Industry insiders say it’s unlikely McDermott will remain at DreamWorks, but is not headed for Fox.

Insiders have been expecting Herzog to leave since last fall, when Sandy Grushow was elevated to a new position overseeing both 20th Century Fox Television and Fox Broadcasting.

Indeed, Herzog had long maintained that he would not be comfortable serving in a position which reported to Grushow (Daily Variety, Nov. 16, 1999.)

Fox has now had six top programmers in its 13-year history. Herzog’s run, which began in January 1999 when the former Comedy Central topper officially joined Fox, goes down as the briefest.

Herzog will exit Fox on Friday. Terms of his financial settlement with Fox were not disclosed, but the net will pay off a substantial portion of the multiple years remaining on his pact. Herzog was pulling in north of $2 million per year.

His replacement isn’t expected to start until late May or June, after the net has announced its fall 2000 sked to advertisers. Instead, Grushow and Herzog’s number two, David Nevins, will assume day-to-day responsibility for running the web.

“Doug has made important and lasting contributions to the success of the network, particularly in the area of live action comedies,” Grushow said in a statement. “We wish him the same success in his future endeavors that has always characterized his career.”

Herzog said that, after a rocky fall, he believed Fox would “finish up this season in a strong position. I’m proud to have contributed to its success.”

“It’s been an enormous challenge, but I feel like we’re leaving on a high note,” Herzog told Daily Variety.

Herzog declined to say what his next move would be, other than a trip with his family to Hawaii. “I’m going to be looking for a great creative challenge,” he said. “It’s a good time to be in the media business.”

Herzog admitted it’s been “a very tough year personally and professionally. But it I’ve learned a hell of a lot, and made a lot of great friends. It turned out to be a great adventure.”

Several cable and Internet companies have apparently already approached Herzog about positions. Shockwave.com and Pop.com have been mentioned as possible landing spots for Herzog. The Fox exec had apparently been on the short list of candidates for the recently-filled CEO position at Pop.

As for Berman, the key to her making a deal at Fox will be New Regency topper Arnon Milchan. Berman has a long-term deal in place with Regency, and Milchan will likely seek some sort of compensation from Fox to let Berman go.

If Berman does go to Fox, Regency could, for example, be given several production or pilot commitments in return.

Tough job

Herzog, who came to Fox with no real broadcast network experience, had always been realistic about his chances of succeeding in a post which has regularly devoured those who’ve held it. Indeed, less than a week after he joined Fox, he was already joking with reporters about his long-term prognosis.

“This is the most dangerous job in television. And I now have it,” he said.

While the chances of Herzog and Grushow lasting together as a team were never good, sources close to both execs said the two men got along well.

Herzog and Grushow “had a great relationship. I don’t remember a single fight,” one insider said.

Nonetheless, sources familiar with the execs’ relationship said that Herzog and Grushow approached their jobs far differently, with Grushow being far more intense about the day-to-day work of running a web.

“It’s not what Doug signed up for,” one insider said. “Under David Hill and Peter Chernin, it was a different landscape in terms of responsibilities. There was never any angst about it; it was just a different job.”

Herzog first approached Fox Group topper Peter Chernin about ankling late last year; talks turned serious several weeks ago. Both Chernin and Grushow wanted Herzog to stay on but didn’t actively seek to keep him in a job he clearly wanted out of.

Saddened by exit

While most TV insiders weren’t shocked by Herzog’s resignation, many were saddened by his exit.

“He’s a great guy and did a good job,” Jay Sures, co-head of TV at UTA said. “He identified ‘Titus,’ he identified ‘Malcolm in the Middle.’ Those two shows seem to be on track to be bonafide hits on the network.”

“Malcolm” creator Linwood Boomer said he was “incredibly sorry to see Doug go. “He was a constant champion of ‘Malcolm’ and a big reason for its success. He saw the potential in the show right away and also was the first and foremost person to see Jane Kaczmarek’s star power. He deserves a lot of credit.”

Herzog, who had served as prexy and CEO of Comedy Central, was brought in to replace former Fox Entertainment prexy Peter Roth after Roth departed the net in fall of 1998.

Early on, Hollywood types grumbled loudly about Herzog’s appointment at Fox. Herzog was one of a number of cable execs that made the transition to network TV around the same time.

The exec, who had a huge amount of success in the cable world –topped off by the “South Park” phenom at Comedy Central — admittedly encountered a steep learning curve in the world of network TV. Nonetheless, News Corp. brass hoped that Herzog would work some magic in the area the network was weakest — comedy.

Herzog moved from New York to the West Coast in January 1999, in time for the bulk of development and pilot season.

Taking a fall

The webhead’s tenure hit a pothole last fall, when the network’s schedule crumbled around the disappointing performance of “Action.” Fox put most of its effort in attempting to launch the edgy half-hour about an unlikable movie producer.

The hype was huge, reviews were good and marketing was intense. But viewers never came to “Action.”

Most of the network’s other new series (and even returning ones) were also DOA. The Friday night lineup of “Ryan Caufield: Year One” and “Harsh Realm” were yanked just weeks after their premiere, not endearing Herzog to “Harsh Realm” creator Chris Carter.

“Party of Five” collapsed in its move to Tuesdays. “Family Guy” fell apart behind “Action” on Thursdays. Viewers couldn’t stomach the half-hour “Ally.” And in an embarrassing move, the teen skein “Manchester Prep” never even made it to air.

The bad news finally dissipated in January, when the stellar premiere of “Malcolm” finally gave Fox some reason to cheer. More recently, the premiere of “Titus” gave Fox reason to believe it will soon have three live-action comedy hits. Just two years ago the network had none.

Prior to Comedy Central, Herzog spent nearly a decade at MTV, where he rose through the ranks to exec VP of programming and production. Herzog oversaw fare such as MTV News, “The Real World,” “Remote Control” and “The MTV Video Music Awards.” He joined MTV after spending time in various producer roles at “Entertainment Tonight,” CNN and TBS.

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