Ad-skipping technology, live TV streaming and over-the-top alternatives are just a few of the rapid changes in the TV landscape that have been at the center of Rita Tuzon’s job.
As executive VP and general counsel of Fox Networks Group, she plays a lead role in navigating the disruptive forces in the industry — some of which have been met with networks’ embrace and others with a challenge to copyright infringement.
“The industry was in a long period of stability,” says Tuzon — Variety’s Legal Impact Counsel of the Year for 2015. “But there have been changes in the business where it is fundamental that we take a stand.”
Fox played a highly visible role as one of the broadcast plaintiffs in the challenge to start-up streaming service Aereo, in a case that made it all the way to the Supreme Court, which ultimately ruled in favor of the TV networks.
But Fox also has been engaged in a protracted legal tangle with Dish Network, which won significant legal rulings over its ad-skipping Hopper service yet still has to contend with perennially thorny negotiations for retransmission of Fox content. And those negotiations have become ever-more complicated with emerging over-the-top video services like Apple TV.
Tuzon says the way to meet challenges of digital rights is to be “very forward-looking and strategic. We are in a time of change. Each of the negotiations affects the next one.”
Tuzon had an unlikely path to her role as one of the industry’s top legal executives. She was raised in Watsonville, Calif., by a father who was a tractor driver in lettuce fields and a mother who was a reading resource teacher.
Tuzon credits an “immigrant ethic” in influencing her to do well in school and go to college, one of the few in her community to do so. She went to Stanford U., intent on pursuing a career in medicine, but her plans changed when she was persuaded to take the LSAT in senior year. She got into UC Berkeley’s Boalt School of Law.
After graduation and passing the Bar exam in 1984, she originally worked for a law firm that specialized in health-related issues. But she joined Hill Wynne Troop & Meisinger in 1987, with her first day marked by the news that the firm landed Johnny Carson as a client.
Lou Meisinger, who would later go on to be general counsel of the Walt Disney Co. and a judge in Los Angeles Superior Court, was a mentor.
Her experience was also marked by the firm’s representation in defending Fox in a case brought by Tracey Ullman over merchandising profits from “The Simpsons.” In 1992, a jury ruled in Fox’s favor.
“That was a groundbreaking case because studios really did not bring a case to trial with a star on the other side,” says Tuzon, who was made partner that same year.
She went inhouse at Fox in 1997 as senior VP of litigation, quickly seeing big differences from working as an outside counsel. “You are looking at a lot of other considerations,” she says.
Tuzon’s husband, Richard Stone, is a litigator at Jenner & Block, which represented Fox in the Aereo and Dish Network cases, and they have two children, ages 13 and 17.
Although she says, “anybody who tells you that you can have it all and it’s easy is lying,” she does make a point of being “100% present with my family.”
Tuzon’s activities include mentoring students who are part of the Los Angeles Center for Enriched Studies. “That’s often the happiest part of my day,” she says.
Although litigation garners headlines and, at least when a case hits the high court, an adrenaline rush, Tuzon cites work with integrating Fox’s international channels as a major accomplishment of the past year. “I want to be more strategic in looking around the globe — and not be in silos,” Tuzon says.
Her day starts early, checking emails from Europe at 6 a.m. and, before going to bed, emails from Asia. “The world is smaller — and bigger,” she says.