Peter Rice to replace Peter Liguori

The biggest surprise in Rupert Murdoch’s reorg of the Fox lot on Thursday was Fox Searchlight prexy Peter Rice’s shift over to the TV network side, as chairman of Fox Entertainment.

But Murdoch’s other moves underlined his longtime goal of linking various factions within the conglom.

The hierarchy restructure – which sees Tom Rothman and Jim Gianopulos expand their duties – has been taking shape since Peter Chernin’s Feb. 23 resignation as News Corp. prexy and chief operating officer.

With Rice moving to TV, Fox Searchlight vets Nancy Utley and Steve Gilula, who serve as chief operating officers, will jointly run the shingle, though biz insiders still wondered whether another top exec may be slotted in down the road.

Tony Vinciquerra, chairman of Fox Networks Group, will add oversight of Fox Broadcasting’s programming to his portfolio, which already includes most of the company’s cable channels (he was already overseeing the net’s business side). Rice will report to Vinciquerra.

The only major departure in the shuffle is Peter Liguori, who’s out after five years at the network.

Fox Filmed Entertainment co-chairs Rothman and Gianopulos got a big vote of confidence from Murdoch, as they will now oversee all TV production as well, as expected. Twentieth Century Fox TV chairs Dana Walden and Gary Newman are now reporting to them.

Rothman and Gianopulos have limited experience in the TV arena but have enjoyed a long stretch of profitability in the film side. Industry sources said Walden and Newman had been given assurances from Gianopulos and Rothman that their autonomy would remain intact.

Walden and Newman also get to expand their domain, as the Fox TV Studios production unit – headed by prexy Emiliano Calemzuk, who had reported to Chernin – will now report to them.

In Thursday’s shuffle, the most dramatic changes were obviously on the TV side, including the naming of the three film vets (Gianopulos, Rothman and Rice) to key positions. But that underlines Murdoch’s big-picture plan of interconnected departments, and it gives them the multiplatform experience that was one of Chernin’s strengths.

Murdoch is a big fan of Rice – and it’s believed that, with Chernin leaving his News Corp. role on June 30, the mogul wanted to put Rice in a key position.

“I’m convinced Peter Rice is the right person to transform our broadcast television business,” Murdoch said.

These mark the latest in a long line of unconventional TV appointments by Murdoch. In the 1990s, he brought in Fox Sports topper David Hill to serve as Fox Entertainment chairman for several years. His decision to put Fox News topper Roger Ailes in charge of Twentieth TV and the Fox Television Stations was also a surprise.

Insiders don’t expect any major changes at Searchlight, which is coming off a year of unprecedented success thanks to Oscar best pic winner and box office hit “Slumdog Millionaire.” In fact, some say Rice’s greatest contribution to the specialty label was evident in his ability to manage his staff.

“Not taking anything away from Peter (Rice), but part of his skill is that he nurtured an executive team that runs very seamlessly without him,” said a producer who worked closely with Rice and Searchlight. “This move solves a managerial problem for them. You have a superstar manager in Peter Rice, and Rupert needed to promote him. This was the only way to do it.”

The elevation of Vinciquerra has been expected for some time, even prior to Chernin’s departure. Vinciquerra has earned solid marks as chairman of the Fox Networks Group, having already overseen 36 outlets (including 19 regional sports nets). With Vinciquerra now in charge of both network and cable, expect more synergies between outlets – such as between Fox and FX.

As for Fox’s relationship with sister studio 20th Century Fox TV, the new setup actually winds up splitting the two sides even further apart.

With Chernin out of the picture and the network and studio reporting to separate toppers, insiders admit it may be tougher to mesh the two sides’ agendas. Chernin would traditionally resolve any conflicts between the two; now, it will be up to the net and studio toppers to iron things out.

That makes Fox the one network whose studio is not housed under the same roof (ironic, as Fox was actually the first network to be co-owned with a full-fledged studio). At one time, Fox and 20th Century Fox TV both operated under former Fox TV chairman Sandy Grushow; since Grushow’s departure in early 2004, Chernin had provided the common link.

Walden and Newman’s 10-year tenure heading up the studio has been marked by a consistent stream of hit programming and shows that have gone on to syndie riches – and the execs likely believed that they’d earned the right to report to Murdoch directly, much like Ailes and others. But others noted that Chernin had 20 direct reports; it just wasn’t feasible for Murdoch to absorb them all.

Rothman and Gianopulos, Vinciquerra and Fox Interactive Media prexy Peter Levinsohn will now report directly to News Corp. chairman Murdoch. Fox News chairman Roger Ailes, who oversees the Fox News and Fox Business News cablers, Fox Television Stations and the Twentieth TV distrib unit, continues to report to Murdoch.

Twentieth Century Fox TV was also handed oversight of Fox TV Studios – which has long operated as its own entity and has recently focused its attention on international co-productions. That instantly gives Walden and Newman a much larger international presence – and another shingle, along with its pre-existing Fox 21, focused on low-cost programming.

Fox TV Studios, led by Calemzuk, will continue to operate as its own entity and isn’t expected to be merged with Fox 21, insiders said.

At Fox Searchlight, Rice, Utley and Gilula had worked together for nine years, and many said their sensibilities were aligned.

Utley, a marketing vet who came up the ranks through 20th Century Fox’s marketing department before landing at the specialty division in 1999, is lauded within the creative community as someone who is equally comfortable talking about scripts as campaigns. Gilula, a co-founder of the Landmark Theaters chain, joined Searchlight in 2000 and became known as a distribution force for his keen sense of platforming titles.

Gilula is best known for discovering “Bend It Like Beckham.” He championed the film and was behind Searchlight closing the deal for the pic at Cannes. Utley is credited with bringing “Waitress” and “Super Troopers” into the Searchlight fold.

One popular refrain emanating from the film community is the notion that Rice likes to embrace challenges. In fact, some were surprised when Rice segued in 2000 from working on such tentpoles as “X-Men” and “Independence Day” at 20th Century Fox to specialized films at Searchlight. And yet he made that transition seamlessly, with his tenure at the specialty label being marked by such successes as “Juno,” “Little Miss Sunshine,” “Sideways” and “Napoleon Dynamite.”

In 2006, Fox gave Rice oversight of startup genre label Fox Atomic. As is the case today, that move was seen as a way to give Rice new challenges. The shift also poises Rice to get an overview of the conglom.

As for the well-liked Liguori, industry execs expressed surprise over the decision to cut him loose, especially since the Fox Entertainment chairman position wasn’t eliminated in the process.

“I don’t quite understand it,” said one tenpercenter. “Liguori is a great guy, and he and Kevin (Reilly) had a strong working relationship.”

The move was also a surprise to Liguori, who was expecting to report to Vinciquerra in the new scenario and only learned Thursday morning that he’d be leaving.

Liguori’s departure comes in the midst of pilot season and just two months before the network upfronts – when he would have taken the stage to sell Fox’s wares to advertisers. Now, it will be Rice who makes the pitch to Madison Avenue alongside Fox Entertainment prexy Kevin Reilly.

As is usual when an outsider moves into the TV ranks, some industry players fretted over how familiar Rice is with the business – and how that limited experience may impact Fox as pilot season winds down.

But News Corp. insiders said they believe Rice and Reilly will work well together; both are known for their taste in high-quality, offbeat fare.

The entertainment chairman title, which had been dormant for years, was resurrected in 2007 at the request of Liguori, who engineered the hiring of Kevin Reilly to succeed him as Fox Entertainment president.

Industry insiders wondered whether Liguori had ultimately engineered himself out of a job by bringing in Reilly, as some believed that a Fox Entertainment chairmanship wasn’t necessary.

Yet the Liguori-Reilly relationship flourished, with Liguori focusing on marketing and larger strategy issues and Reilly handling development. Under their partnership, the net this season launched promising hours such as “Fringe” and “Lie to Me.”

Nonetheless, some had predicted that News Corp. might opt to once again eliminate the chairmanship position once Liguori’s contract expired this summer.

It’s too early to tell what Liguori’s next move may be, but insiders said the exec isn’t expected to move into a production deal at the conglom (a frequent route for pinkslipped execs).

Cynthia Littleton also contributed to this report

Here is the memo Rupert Murdoch sent to News Corp. employees Thursday:

Dear Colleagues:

Today I’m announcing a series of management changes to our LA-based businesses to ensure we’re well positioned to meet the challenges and opportunities we will face in the coming months. I have been deeply engaged with senior management to develop a renewed model on which to further grow and transform our business. Challenging economic times can yield great advancements and ultimately unleash new, innovative thinking. Ours is a company that has always thrived on change, so it’s with great enthusiasm that I share with you our initial plans for moving forward.

Creative Production

Effective immediately, all of our LA-based creative production businesses will be reporting to Jim Gianopulos and Tom Rothman, co-chairmen and CEOs of Fox Filmed Entertainment. Tom and Jim have built one of the most successful studios in the world, and I have full confidence in their ability to manage our film and television talent in transformative ways. Under this new structure, Gary Newman and Dana Walden, co-chairmen of Twentieth Century Fox Television, will report to Tom and Jim. Emiliano Calemzuk, president, Fox Television Studios, will report to Dana and Gary.

This new creative structure will enable us immediately to operate more efficiently. We will remove unnecessary barriers that have existed between our businesses, thereby better facilitating the sharing of ideas and resources. Not only will we benefit as a business from these changes, but perhaps most importantly, I’m certain our end users – the millions of people around the world who every day enjoy our creative products – will see the benefits as well.

Networks Group

On the television network side of the business, Tony Vinciquerra, chairman and CEO of Fox Networks Group, will continue to head the cable networks, the business aspects of FOX Broadcasting, Fox International Channels, and will gain responsibility for FOX Broadcasting programming. Tony has been instrumental in growing our cable businesses both domestically and internationally, and has been responsible for negotiating many of our landmark carriage and broadcast deals that have made us the leader in broadcast and cable television. As part of this restructuring, Peter Liguori has stepped down as chairman of entertainment, Fox Broadcasting. Under his leadership, FOX was the number one network four years in a row, and I am grateful for his many contributions.

Peter Rice, president of Fox Searchlight, will exit his role at the specialty label and will assume the role of chairman of entertainment, Fox Broadcasting. During his long and successful tenure at Fox Searchlight, Peter has been the driving force behind the success of the specialty film genre, shepherding to the screen some of the industry’s most successful films, including Slumdog Millionaire, Little Miss Sunshine, and Juno. Peter has the vision, creativity and determination to grow and remodel our television network, and I’m delighted he has accepted this new challenge. In this role, Peter will report directly to Tony Vinciquerra.

With Peter’s departure at Fox Searchlight, Nancy Utley and Steve Gilula will jointly run the business, reporting to Jim and Tom. Nancy and Steve, COOs of Fox Searchlight, who have been Peter’s partners through all of the unit’s great successes, will assume full authority for the business. Claudia Lewis, president of production, remains in place.

Other

Roger Ailes, chairman and CEO of FOX News Channel and Fox Business Network and chairman of the Fox Television Stations and Twentieth Television, and Peter Levinsohn, president of Fox Interactive Media, will continue to report directly to me.

Please join me in congratulating Jim, Tom, Tony and Peter in their new roles.

Rupert Murdoch

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