It’s Fox’s dream team

Stability in top exec ranks leads to ratings nump

It took a bit longer than he might have liked, but Rupert Murdoch is closing in on one of his fondest dreams: owning the No. 1 TV network in America.

After years of false starts and revolving-door management, Murdoch’s renegade Fox Broadcasting Co. stands as close as it ever has to achieving a mainstream milestone by becoming the top-rated net among viewers 18-49, the demo group that matters most to Madison Ave.

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Fueled by pop culture phenom “American Idol,” hit drama “24” and a resurgent “That ’70s Show,” Fox ended last season just two-tenths of a ratings point behind frontrunner NBC.

The finales of “Friends” and “Frasier” probably mean the Peacock will hold onto the crown one more year — but after that, the smart money says Fox has the best shot of any net to pass NBC as the Nielsen leader.

Not bad for a network that, as recently as three years ago, seemed to have permanently lost its way, with a new team of execs being brought in every two years to try to stop the bleeding.

Fox Television Entertainment Group chairman Sandy Grushow says Murdoch and COO Peter Chernin’s support for risk-taking is yielding dividends at the net.

“From a business standpoint, that means we have the license to invest in people and ideas we believe in,” Grushow says.

“From a creative standpoint, we can endeavor to be as adventurous as possible and reject the conventional and break new ground whenever and wherever possible.”

Grushow also believes stability and persistence are responsible for the network’s current success.

“The revolving door stopped and you now have got a number of people who’ve been here a while,” he says. “We put a plan in place three years ago, and we’ve been able to follow through with that plan. Before, there was so much movement inside this particular division, there was barely enough time for people to put a plan in place, let alone execute it.”

Grushowis a big part of that stability.

He was at Fox during the net’s early glory days, working with Barry Diller, Jamie Kellner, Garth Ancier and Chernin to put the former weblet on the map.

When Grushow left the net in 1994, it marked the beginning of Fox’s slow drift away from young, edgy programming as Murdoch sought to take his net to the top via a more conventional, mainstream route — such as signing a deal with Hallmark for CBS-style movies-of-the-week.

Needless to say, it didn’t work.

What’s more, as Fox was drifting away from its brand, newer netlets like Kellner and Ancier’s WB were stealing away some of the young auds that used to be Fox’s lifeblood.

Having already brought Grushow back into the News Corp. fold in 1997 to take over 20th Century Fox TV, Chernin in late 1999 turned to Grushow to whip things back into shape at the network.

Grushow immediately got his hands dirty, actually going so far as to help cut promos for shows like the about-to-premiere “Malcolm in the Middle” — the same job he did when he first joined Fox in 1988.

Exec then came under pressure to fire alternative guru Mike Darnell in the wake of the media relations nightmare of “Who Wants to Marry a Multimillionaire.”

But Grushow stuck by Darnell — a wise move, considering subsequent Darnell-developed hits “Temptation Island,” “American Idol” and, most recently, “Paradise Hotel.”

Grushow then brought in Gail Berman to serve as entertainment prexy. Before Berman joined the net, Fox had cycled through no fewer than six entertainment toppers in eight years, with each having an average lifespan of two years.

Berman just started her fourth year in the job.

Chernin is pleased by the momentum Fox has achieved under Grushow and Berman, saying the net has just come off “a remarkable year.”

“I feel great about the progress we made,” Chernin says. “On the other hand, we’ve got a lot of hard work ahead of us. And I think no one recognizes that more than Sandy and Gail. What makes network TV such a demanding job — and it’s why the two of them are so good at it — is that it’s just relentless. As soon as you get one thing happening right, you’ve got 15 more challenges and issues coming at you.”

Indeed, because Fox pre-empts most of its lineup in October for baseball, the net is moving toward a year-round programming strategy.

While even competitors like NBC admit the days of summer repeats are gone, Fox is the only net aggressively programming original scripted fare between June and September. It’s also the only net that isn’t airing most of its new shows in October, when viewers are trained to look for fresh fare.

All of the above is likely going to mean some Nielsen pain once again this fall as viewers try to get their hands around the idea of quality fare in the summer, or new shows taking a break for a month.”Our goal this year is not to get left in the dust in fourth quarter,” Grushow says. “If we can be competitive — and our fourth quarter is a lot stronger this year — we know what’s going to happen with ‘American Idol 3’ and the usual success Fox has at midseason.”

Grushow says he has no illusions about how difficult it’s going to be to beat NBC this coming season and instead is focused on positioning Fox to thrive post-“Friends.”

Come fall 2004, “It’s going to be a jump ball,” Grushow says. “Our goal is to put ourselves in the position of being the number one network 18-49.”

Chernin says that if Fox can make it to the top, “every other matrix will follow: Immense profitability flows from being the number one network.”

Grushow and Berman have been a key part of getting Fox firmly on the path toward number one, so it’s no surprise that — for a change — there’s no speculation about anyone at the top of Fox getting fired.

Berman’s deal doesn’t expire until 2005, but Grushow’s is up at the end of this season. Considering Fox’s success — and Grushow’s particularly close connections and friendships with Kellner, Diller and Howard Stringer– some industry insiders are wondering if he’ll stay put.

Chernin — whose own deal is also up next year — says “absolutely” when asked if Grushow and Berman will be sticking around.

“I’ll certainly try as hard as I can to keep them,” he says.