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Barry Diller Took Fox Network From Ridicule to Respect

There has been only one era of the Fox television network--the Barry Diller era.

When he launched the long-shot “fourth network” in October, 1986, with the late-night Joan Rivers talk show, which ultimately failed, Diller was shooting for his greatest achievement, joining the historic handful of executives who pulled off the successful creation of an influential national broadcast organization.

Beyond such names as NBC’s David Sarnoff, CBS’ William Paley and ABC’s Leonard Goldenson--and Diller’s contemporary equal as a TV visionary, Ted Turner--there were hardly any lasting precedents.

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Diller, who stunned Hollywood and the business world with his resignation Monday as chairman of Fox Inc., knew precisely what he was doing from the time he launched his little network. At a party at his house for Paley, about the time that the Fox Broadcasting Co. was getting under way, he looked at the CBS leader and told us:

“No one will ever again build a network like his. Rather than a complete, old-style network, we will be, more accurately, networking.”

That’s what the Fox network did and still does--providing a minimal news service thus far, but supplying a growing number of entertainment shows and broadcast nights for more than 100 stations. Diller thus became invaluable to many small UHF stations who were able to build their franchises because of his programming.

While the praises flowed the last few days for his accomplishments, the fact is--as Diller has stated--that most of the established broadcast powers wanted him and Fox to fail. Known for his tough, hands-on style of management, he realistically positioned Fox as an upstart sniper that could smell blood in the eroding of traditional network power.

Some performers, such as NBC’s David Letterman, openly ridiculed Fox in its earlier days. One of Diller’s early stars and his first Emmy winner, Tracey Ullman, brashly and wittily took on Letterman on his own show, defending her brand-new network.

In a strong sense, Diller was facing the same kind of condescension and bad wishes that greeted Goldenson from NBC and CBS when he launched the then-tiny ABC as a network in the 1950s. Sarnoff once insulted ABC in an incredible manner by suggesting to Goldenson that he rerun shows of the two larger networks.

It is no small irony that ABC and Fox now are both flourishing and profitable at a time when both NBC and CBS are losing money--and, according to some insiders, might be candidates for a takeover bid by Diller.

The established networks also ridiculed and insulted Turner’s CNN when it started up a decade ago. Now, it, too, is flourishing as NBC and CBS are gasping for survival.

ABC, Fox, Turner, underdogs all, are the new primary forces of commercial TV.

Like Goldenson, who used low-budget Western series to compete in ABC’s early years--because CBS and NBC had most of the great broadcast performers tied up--Diller also had to find his own weapons that would be wholly different in image from the older networks.

Goldenson was often accused of lowering the taste and standards of TV in ABC’s fledgling days with his horse operas and routine cop series. And Diller, too, found himself facing his toughest, most unrelenting--and most justified--criticism by shooting for the 18-to-34 male audience with frequently vulgar hits such as “Married . . . With Children” and sensational, tabloid-style reality series.

This was ironic because beyond the murderously tough executive style for which Diller is known, he is widely regarded as a man of great personal sophistication and taste. But as the architect of Fox TV, he was ultimately the pragmatic bottom-liner in his programming.

In this sense, one suspects he was not unlike Grant Tinker, who helped rebuild NBC with the help of such shows as “The A-Team,” which he admits was not to his personal taste.

The flip side is that, in its short but explosive life as a new network competitor, Fox, under Diller, has also broadcast a number of genuinely innovative series, among them “The Simpsons,” “The Tracey Ullman Show,” “In Living Color,” “Roc,” “Cops” and “Beverly Hills, 90210.”

Diller knew he had to be different. Once, watching the off-the-wall series “Twin Peaks,” he wondered to himself what it was doing on ABC when it should have been on Fox.

He also might have had a late-night staple--which Fox never has established--if he had hung on to Arsenio Hall, a fill-in host after Rivers’ departure.

If Diller succeeded mightily by establishing Fox against heavy odds--the “fourth network” concept had been a dream of others for years--the racy content of some his shows and the breathless sensationalism of several of his reality series had what many regard as a strong negative impact on TV overall.

Television, including the Big Three, had hardly been virginal in this respect. But Fox’s influence is clearly apparent in the flood of cost-efficient--that means cheap--reality series that now flood CBS, NBC and ABC, shows such as “American Detective,” “Street Stories” and “I Witness Video.”

And it could easily be argued that the blunt, suggestive dialogue of such series as “Married . . . With Children” has also had its effect on the Big Three’s entertainment shows, which increasingly have taken liberties that often offend traditional viewers.

The end result, though, from Fox’s point of view, is that the in-your-face style of programming worked for the young network. And a major reason for this was that Diller was not only a brilliant strategist and executive, but also a showman who, like Turner, actually loves the business--unlike the General Electric conglomerate that bought NBC and Loews hotel magnate Laurence Tisch, who took over CBS.

It seems hardly a coincidence that Fox’s creation and rise began in 1986, just about the same time that these non-show business corporate influences purchased the old-style networks, stripping them of the subtle qualities of adventure, romance and fun that make the entertainment world different from any other.

Diller’s participation in the product he was turning out--even to joining in news sessions at Fox’s local station, KTTV Channel 11--reflected his real interest in his programming and the specific directions he wanted it to take, right or wrong. Nothing summed up his approach better than a line in his resignation statement Monday:

“There is no perfect time for this. . . . In the end the only way to do it is to do it.”

Producers who worked closely with Diller at Fox emphasized his showman-like participation in interviews with The Times following his resignation.

James L. Brooks, producer of “The Simpsons” and “The Tracey Ullman Show,” said of Diller’s departure to run his own company:

“It’s very personal for me. I had huge fights with him on both shows, but there were no hard feelings. I thought ‘The Tracey Ullman Show’ should have stayed on as long as she wanted to do it. With ‘The Simpsons,’ I felt they should give us a full half-season at the start, and he finally agreed to that. I wanted (“The Simpsons”) to stay on Sunday night badly, and I lost that.”

That was the occasion when Fox shook up NBC by programming “The Simpsons” directly against the vaunted series “The Cosby Show.” It was another brilliant example of Fox’s spit-in-your-eye style, it helped bring “The Cosby Show” down to earth and it inevitably weakened the Thursday-night lineup that kept NBC at the top of the ratings for six seasons.

“Barry is one of the main reasons I’m at Fox,” said Aaron Spelling, whose company produces “Beverly Hills, 90210.” Diller, said Spelling, “is one of the most exciting, if not the most exciting, person I’ve ever worked with. It goes back to when he was in charge of TV movies at ABC. We had an idea for a Western movie called ‘The Over-the-Hill Gang.’ He said, ‘Do it.’ He didn’t say, ‘Put it in development.’ That’s the kind of entrepreneurship that stamps Barry.”

Keenen Ivory Wayans, the irreverent producer and star of “In Living Color,” said, like others, that he was shocked by Diller leaving: “He’s a great man.” Tamara Rawitt, producer of “In Living Color,” added: “Barry is gifted at taking companies, mobilizing them and taking them to great heights.”

Chris Albrecht, president of HBO Independent Productions, which produces “Roc,” predicted there would be “a culture shock both inside and outside (Fox)” with Diller’s departure. When he was there, said Albrecht, the thinking was: “You have to please one person. If Diller gets behind it, it’ll happen.”

It is possible--many believe probable--that Diller’s leaving may be just the start of yet a new industry jigsaw puzzle. Unsubstantiated scenarios are flying all over the place. One is that Diller--who is a magnet for investors--might try to buy NBC (or CBS), drastically cut overhead, sell off two nights to a studio to help finance the deal, program only five evenings a week and perhaps do co-ventures with Turner in news and sports.

The tightly run Fox network has only slightly more than 200 employees, compared to thousands for the Big Three, which are also following Diller’s lead as they strip down to bare-bones staffs. Diller earned a percentage of Fox’s profits and owns about 2 million shares of the stock of its parent company, Rupert Murdoch’s News Corp.

But he was still an employee. Now, he wants to play with his own toys.

And he’s very good at it.


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