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Murdoch Voices Disappointment Over Fox TV

TIMES STAFF WRITERS

Rupert Murdoch said Tuesday that his Fox Television Network became the victim of its own ambition this fall when it staggered the release of its slate of new programs, most of which then sank in the ratings.

“We were too ambitious in trying to develop too many new shows all in one year and in launching them over a longer period,” Murdoch told the first annual shareholders meeting of Fox Entertainment Group, controlled by Murdoch’s News Corp. “Our strategy did not work this year.”

Murdoch offered the analysis of Fox in the wake of yet another personnel shake-up at the network--the installation of Sandy Grushow as chairman of Fox Television Entertainment Group, placing him above network chief Doug Herzog.

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In his blunt but understated manner, Murdoch promised shareholders in the company, a portion of which was spun off to the public by News Corp. a year ago, that he would not have unlimited patience.

“We’re working very hard at our scheduling. We’re working very hard at our marketing and the development of new shows,” he said.

“I fully expect better results"--and then he paused briefly--"soon.”

Among the Fox casualties were “Ryan Caulfield: Year One” and “Harsh Realm,” a highly anticipated show from “X-Files” creator Chris Carter. Also, the much-hyped “Action” about an obnoxious Hollywood producer proved a dud as well.

Some have faulted Murdoch’s efforts to broaden Fox, causing it to lose some of its core youth audience that once viewed it as irreverent and hip to competitors such as the WB network. In addition, some critics believe the network has lost some of its luster because of its proliferation of so-called reality programs such as “When Animals Attack” and “Busted on the Job.”

The remarks about the disappointing television season were one of only a few downbeat moments in Murdoch’s remarks about what he insisted was “an extraordinary year” for the Fox media conglomerate.

Commenting on everything from televised professional wrestling to profit from this year’s Star Wars “prequel,” Murdoch was especially upbeat about prospects for new media, particularly a Fox.com Internet site that, among other things, will run original programming by the creators of this summer’s surprise movie blockbuster--"The Blair Witch Project"--hopefully leading to a Fox series next year.

Much as they did with “Blair Witch,” the young partners in Haxan Films hope to build interest in their story through a series of bizarre episodes on the Web site. The TV series, titled “Fearsum,” has the hero gradually discover that his twin--whom he believed was dead--might still be living.

Peter Chernin, president and chief operating officer of News Corp. and Murdoch’s second in command, said the “Blair Witch” team “would come in and launch it on the Internet site, probably in February or March, with the expectation that the series would go on the air in the fall season.”

Chernin said Fox’s site, which will be started with an investment of about $10 million, also will run “short-form original Internet comedy.”

Murdoch said Fox will announce other Internet ventures in the next few months, though he called exaggerated those reports that News Corp. might invest $1 billion in Healteon/WebMD.

On the film front, Murdoch acknowledged that this has been a “lean year” when compared with the previous “Titanic” year. The record-shattering film opened in late 1997, but did most of its business last year. In addition, Fox last year had the hugely profitable “There’s Something About Mary.”

Murdoch said that Fox’s sports programming--led by NFL football--is “exceeding our expectations.” But he questioned the high cost for rights to broadcast sporting events.

Although disappointed with the Fox TV network’s fall season, and with the fledgling Fox Family Network, Murdoch predicted that shareholders will start to “reap the benefits” when a slew of Fox-produced TV series--many showing on other networks--come up for syndication in 2001.

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Lieberman reported from New York. Bates reported from Los Angeles. Bloomberg News was used in compiling this report.

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* NBC DEAL?

Rupert Murdoch said that General Electric has offered NBC to Time Warner. C6


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