Trying to Retrain a Stray Fox

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Fox Entertainment President Peter Roth is planted in one of the chairs in his large office. But even while sitting down, he is a man in motion.

In conversation, Roth leans forward and moves his arms to illustrate his points. He leans back and drapes one leg over the arm of the chair. His hands are a blur, and his words don't come that much slower.

Colleagues of Roth, who arrived at Fox in September, say his liveliness has nothing to do with the fact that he's now sitting in one of the hottest seats in television--heading up the entertainment division of a troubled network facing an uphill battle after an unprecedented plunge in ratings prior to his arrival.

And it also has nothing to do with Roth literally acting out the network's November sweeps slogan of "Non-Stop Fox."

Indeed, they say Roth's kinetic intensity--on and off his feet--is tied to his enthusiasm and passion for television, and is indicative of his determination to turn Fox around and restore its identity as a bold and innovative alternative to ABC, CBS and NBC.

"I have a great love for TV, and a great love for this job," Roth says. A devotee of the medium since his youth, Roth says he feels it was his destiny to helm the network.

"I have a clear understanding of what Fox has been, and what it needs to be again," he says. "This is really a dream come true for me."

Thanks largely to Roth, associates say, the network, which at the beginning of the season experienced a nearly 10% drop in household ratings from last year, is already on the mend. Its ratings in the November sweeps are already higher than last year at this time.

"If you were to do a worldwide search, there is no one more qualified than Peter to do what needs to be done over at Fox," said Greg Meidel, chairman of the MCA Television Group, who used to work with Roth when they were both top executives at Twentieth Television.

After 20 years in the business, including stints at ABC and Stephen J. Cannell Productions, Roth is, according to friends and associates, extremely adept in spotting strengths and weaknesses in scripts, and in taking a hands-on approach to his projects.

"Peter is one of those executives you treasure, because he knows how to read a script," said producer Chris Carter, who developed "The X-Files" and the new "Millennium" for Fox. "He can make the transition from script to screen in his head. Peter has a great sense of drama."

Roth's passion for the new job can be seen either in the middle of the afternoon, as he maneuvers through a dizzying series of conferences and pitch meetings, or at 3 a.m. or 4 a.m., when he awakens and reads scripts or watches tapes in the quiet of his Brentwood home, where he lives with his wife, Andrea, and their two children.

"Peter has had this glittering career in the television industry and has proved beyond the shadow of a doubt what a very perceptive television animal he is," said Roth's boss, Fox TV President David Hill. "He can tell the ingredients of a hit show, and can work with it from its first seedlings to its growth as a mighty oak."

Said producer Cannell: "In the morning, Peter would have 10 scripts under his arm, and he would have read them all. He is as well prepared as anyone I know for this job."

And if the 45-year-old Roth feels pressure or stress as the unblinking industry spotlight shines on him,he is an expert at hiding it. The smiles and laughs seem to come easily as Roth manipulates his long-term strategy in reversing the fortunes of Fox. Even during a six-city, two-day tour this week to visit Fox affiliates, his voice showed no signs of fatigue or weariness.

"Sure, there's pressure, but much of it is pressure from within," he said.

And despite the scrutiny, Roth has found many reasons to smile in recent weeks. Insiders say his quick and decisive moves--including ousting all of Fox's new comedies as soon as he came on board and bringing back "America's Most Wanted"--has already helped reverse Fox's downward momentum.

With a significant boost from Fox's broadcast of the World Series last month, the network experienced the highest-rated week in its history in October. In that week, the atmospheric and graphically dark "Millennium" attracted the highest premiere ratings ever for a Fox drama; the network's risky move of the popular "X-Files" from Fridays to Sundays also seems to have paid off.

Although the initial audience for "Millennium" dropped off considerably in its second week--by a third--it appears to have stabilized.

Roth said he is more than delighted with the results of his moves and is pleased with Fox's "Non-Stop Fox" sweeps.

"We are exactly on target," Roth said. " 'Millennium' is tracking the same numbers as 'X-Files' at the beginning. So we are on track. And I am so thrilled with 'X-Files' on Sunday, not only with the numbers we're getting, but the quality of the shows."

Roth said the key to returning Fox to its former days of glory is to harken back to its beginning, when founder Rupert Murdoch designed the network as a brash and brazen alternative to the safe and predictable programs of the Big Three networks. The network's attempt in the last few seasons to move closer to the mainstream, principally with yuppie-themed comedies, has failed to catch fire.

"Fox always has stood for alternative," Roth said. "We always set trends, we never followed them. We had all these distinctive shows that could not be found anywhere else. Now the words we are using to invigorate the troops are 'different, bold, daring.' We want shows that are well-crafted and clever. That's what we intend to return to, and that's the message we want to get out to the industry. We want the industry to know that we will deliver the audience if they deliver the goods."

He cited two NBC shows--"3rd Rock From the Sun" and "Men Behaving Badly"--as the type of concepts that would now fit perfectly on Fox.

"Those are Fox shows," Roth said. "They represent what Fox needs to be. My wife is always telling me, 'Stop obsessing about those shows; they belong to somebody else.' "

He added: "We've got extraordinary competitors, and my hat is off to them. But no one should underestimate how determined we are." He cited "Millennium" as a perfect example of where Fox wants to go: "It's the most distinctive show of the year, a show that really pushes the envelope."

Roth is playing it close to the vest when discussing future Fox projects, but one in which he seems interested is an action drama starring former football star Brian "The Boz" Bosworth.

And despite the encouraging results of the first few months, Roth said he will "never be satisfied until we reach our goal. We want to become the No. 1 network with the 18-49 [age] demographic. We won't rest until we get there."

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