The two faces of Fox

Liguori inherits a net with a teeter-totter personality

Corrections were made to this article on Mar. 28, 2005.

He might not know it now, but Peter Liguori, Fox’s next entertainment president will wind up running two networks.

There’s the fall Fox, hampered by baseball playoffs and stuck in fourth place as most of its biggest hitters sit on the bench. Then there’s midseason Fox, the No. 1 network of “American Idol” and “24.”

That dichotomy also extends to the net’s image: There’s the crass Fox of “Joe Millionaire” and “Cops” fame. But then there’s the classy, critically acclaimed, risk-taking Fox of “Arrested Development” and “House.”

Gail Berman managed to navigate both worlds, turning what had been one of the most challenging jobs in television into its most stable. Her predecessors averaged two years or less in the gig; she has been in charge for almost five — making her the longest-running entertainment prexy out there.

As word of Berman’s move to Paramount made the rounds last week, industry execs said they were disappointed to be losing Berman to the film biz. Berman is a rare figure among network TV toppers — universally respected by colleagues and rivals alike.

“She can pass on every single pilot you have, but you still want to go to lunch with her the next day,” says UTA partner Sue Naegle. “She’s passionate and she’s fearless.”

Liguori faces the same challenges that have made Berman’s job — as well as former Fox TV Entertainment Group chair Sandy Grushow’s — so difficult in recent years. That includes the baseball conundrum; the frustration of finding an audience for critical darlings like “Arrested”; and the level of involvement by Peter Chernin and Rupert Murdoch.

Fox will need to replenish its schedule, as several Fox staples are inching toward the finish line. “Malcolm in the Middle,” “King of the Hill” and “That ’70s Show” won’t be around much longer. And the net’s Sunday night sked, home to perennial fave “The Simpsons,” is also showing signs of weakness, while it needs to shore up Fridays and find a companion for “The OC.”

Still, Berman leaves the net as it continues to rebound in one of the biggest-ever midseason turnarounds. Having started off the season in last place, Fox is set to win the year among adults 18-49 for the first time ever (having finished in second place the previous four years).

In finding someone to attack those challenges, Chernin decided to turn to Liguori, who earned raves inside News Corp. for turning what was a moribund, repeat-heavy cable network into one of the top original programming outlets.

Chernin picked Liguori to run FX in 1999 after being impressed by the exec’s sales skills and his creative instincts while handling Fox Cable marketing.

Early on, Liguori sold him on transforming FX from purveyor of cheapie live shows into a destination for unfiltered creativity.

Top-tier players Steven Bochco and Denis Leary took their passion projects to the cabler after watching “The Shield” and “Nip/Tuck” turn into pop culture sensations. He also helped persuade film actress Glenn Close to take a pay cut and come aboard her first TV series regular role for the fourth season of “The Shield.”

Liguori has also shown impeccable taste in picking executive talent. He wooed Kevin Reilly away from Brad Grey TV to lead FX in the premium programming arena.

Media buyers like Liguori because he comes from their world, having spent several years at ad agencies Saatchi & Saatchi and Ogilvy & Mather. Before the launch of his debut scripted hour “The Shield,” Liguori took it upon himself to work one-on-one with buyers — a tactic that’s persuaded advertisers into buying risque shows like “Nip/Tuck” and “Rescue Me,” typically found on HBO.

And while other cable chiefs run in circles to explain away misfires, Liguori hasn’t fumbled yet. The affable exec has turned FX’s few failures into selling points for the network.

Getting the Fox gig reunites Liguori with Chris Carlisle, Fox’s current chief of marketing, whom he recruited in FX’s early years to engineer a marketing plan for male-oriented cutting-edge entertainment.

FX and Fox’s brands aren’t dissimilar — FX even once marketing itself (prior to Liguori’s arrival) as “Fox Gone Cable.” But the cable and broadcast net haven’t worked closely together, other than an ill-fated attempt to repurpose “24” on FX.

Still, as Fox continues to look at changing the way it develops and schedules shows, Liguori may help push the net even further toward a year-round calendar.

“Peter has done an extraordinary job with FX,” Chernin says. “He took what was largely a blank slate and turned it into arguably the hottest network in cable. He’s produced more quality cable programming in the past three years than anyone in the business and has raised the bar for distinctive television.”