Most Hollywood marriages don’t turn out like this.
Fifteen years ago, several executives were jockeying for a plum position running 20th Century Fox Television, the production company behind “The Simpsons” and “Ally McBeal.” The boss made a decision, but it came with a catch: The top contenders, two seemingly mismatched executives, could do the job together — or not at all.
Gary Newman acknowledges he initially wasn’t thrilled. His colleague, Dana Walden, didn’t say much; she was pregnant and queasy with morning sickness.
“I remember going through a brief period of ‘What does this actually mean to share a job,’” Newman recalled. “But by that weekend, we were on the phone talking about how we would approach the job.”
That’s how one of Hollywood’s most lucrative partnerships began.
The pair have since built the Fox television studio into one of the industry’s most prolific by producing culture-defining hits such as “24,” “Glee,” “Sons of Anarchy,” “How I Met Your Mother” and the animated “Family Guy.”
They’ve also been proudly independent by operating the studio autonomously from its sister division, the Fox Broadcasting network. Television production studios like to sell their shows to different TV networks because they can spark bidding wars and boost the price for their hottest prospects. For example, 20th Century Fox produces “Modern Family” for ABC — not Fox — because ABC was desperate for good comedies and showed the most interest.
But there were signs of strain. The Fox studio and Fox network occasionally would engage in combat over shows that they shared, such as a pitched battle over license fees for the sleeper hit “Bones.”
While the studio churned out hits, the once high-flying TV network this past spring was on the ropes. Its aging ratings engine, “American Idol,” lost 20% of its audience and Fox fell into fourth place. The network’s chief of seven years threw in the towel, which prompted Newman and Walden to approach their bosses with a proposal.
Combine the television studio and the broadcast network into one division, and trust them to manage it.
And this time, they were the ones who ruled out splitting up the team.
“Over our dead bodies,” Newman said.
In July, Newman and Walden were named chairmen and chief executives of the newly created Fox Television Group.
Nearly 750 employees work in their expanded division, located at the Fox Studios complex in West Los Angeles. Around the lot, and throughout the TV industry, the duo long have been known simply as “Dana and Gary.” There’s a running joke that you rarely see one without the other.
“They are like a married couple in a weird way, and I mean that in the most positive way,” said Kiefer Sutherland, the star and an executive producer of “24,” Fox’s rogue government agent blockbuster. “They present a united front. And they have each other’s back.”
Newman and Walden have a tight bond. They treat each other with respect, and cheer for each other’s success. They instruct their subordinates that both must be included in email discussions; no one is allowed to go around one to get to the other.
“No divide and conquer,” Walden said.
For a few weeks this fall, the pair even shared a single office in Fox’s administration building as construction workers remodeled the executive suite. There was an executive-size desk in the middle of the room, which Walden occupied, and off to the side was a modest table with a desktop computer.
“My Bob Cratchit desk,” Newman joked, a reference to Ebenezer Scrooge’s long-suffering clerk.
Newman grew up the middle child. He’s the lawyer, the numbers guy. He saw value in a prime-time cartoon that had been canceled by the Fox network, and championed the return of “Family Guy” to the small screen, which mushroomed into a multibillion-dollar franchise.
He was raised in Beverly Hills, excelled in sports and even played on Yale University’s basketball team. (He’s 6 feet 4.) He married his law school sweetheart, Jeanne, who went on to become a partner at a prominent entertainment law firm. They own an organic winery in Santa Barbara County, Jorian Hill Vineyards, which they named after their children.
Walden, the eldest of three girls, was raised in Studio City. She tried tennis, softball and gymnastics until age 13, when she found her passion: riding and showing horses.
She began her career as a publicist, including a stint promoting Arsenio Hall, until she got her own promotion into the executive ranks. Newman likes to take credit for helping introduce Walden to her husband, Matt, two decades ago during a party celebrating “The Simpsons.”
Walden is driven, a perfectionist known for understanding the creative process and inspiring talented and temperamental writers who create the shows that are the lifeblood of the company. She has a knack for refocusing a conversation, particularly for those who might underestimate her, with a piercing stare or a sharp comment.
Show creator Hart Hanson remembered the day, nearly a decade ago, that she changed the DNA of “Bones.”
Hanson had pitched several story lines, which revolved around the show’s forensic team solving decades-old murders.
“And Dana, in that withering way of hers, said: ‘How do we make this more than just some old dusty, boring bones?” Hanson recounted. “She forced me to go back and look at what we were doing. Now, few of our bodies are over a week old.”
Entertainment mogul Peter Chernin, who used to run Fox, said he paired the two in 1999 for a simple reason.
“I didn’t want them to drown by having too much on their plate,” Chernin said. “In some ways, it was the perfect arrangement. Dana had never really done anything that was business-related, and Gary didn’t come from the creative side. And it helps to have a partner to lean on.”
Years ago, Hollywood studios often were managed by two strong executives. Not anymore.
“At some point, these arrangements don’t work primarily because people let their egos get in the way,” Chernin said. “But neither has done that, and that’s a fundamental testament to their character. Gary and Dana deserve all the credit for making it work.”
Network ratings have been declining, but Fox has experienced a steeper slide than most.
Viewers have more choices for entertainment, including streaming services Netflix and Amazon.com. Broadcast television has long been supported by revenue from 30-second commercial spots. But half the homes with TVs in the U.S. now are equipped with digital videorecorders that enable viewers to fast-forward through commercials, reducing their value to advertisers.
Fox got punched during last summer’s TV advertising sales auction. It took in roughly $200 million less in advertising commitments than during the 2013 market because of its sagging ratings.
Then Fox’s fall season got off to a shaky start. Its expensive reality show, “Utopia,” which brought 15 strangers together to build a sustainable community, was greeted with a collective yawn by viewers and canceled.
The network glommed on to a ray of hope in its dark Batman prequel, “Gotham,” which has delivered strong ratings. But several returning shows stumbled. Ratings are down 8% compared with last fall.
Even Rupert Murdoch, chief executive of 21st Century Fox, acknowledged the difficulties facing the network during a meeting with shareholders last week in Los Angeles. “We face challenging head winds,” Murdoch said. “But we have new creative leadership and must be patient as we rebuild our schedule.”
With the stakes so high, there is plenty of pressure on Walden and Newman.
“They need more shows with broad-based appeal,” said Sam Armando, a senior vice president at ad firm SMGx. The network, he said, has been obsessed with developing shows that are trendy and different, but too much of it appeals to a narrow niche.
“Sometimes Fox is guilty of trying too hard,” Armando said.
Walden and Newman said they hope their management style will set the tone as they blend the two factions into a well-functioning family. Some of their showrunners agreed.
“They made the studio feel like a family,” said Ryan Murphy, a co-creator of “Glee” and “American Horror Story,” which runs on FX.
“If they believe in you, then they want you to be successful in all parts of your life, and that’s unusual for a boss,” Murphy said, adding that Newman and Walden even counseled him on the importance of bringing his shows in on budget and managing his earnings. “They’ve mentored me quite a bit.”
Steve Levitan, co-creator of the hit comedy “Modern Family,” said his close relationship with Walden and Newman has kept him at the Fox studio for more than a decade.
“They stick with you, and that’s very comforting for a writer,” Levitan said. “I really do feel like I have a home there.”
Walden and Newman said taking the additional turf was not so much about empire building, but more as a way to respond to industry shifts.
“The realignment was intended to provide stronger programming for the network,” Walden said. “And we didn’t really have a choice if we wanted our studio to continue to succeed. We needed to be able to control our destiny.”
The move should also give a boost to the studio, which had been staring at a shrinking market. Currently, only about half the shows on the Fox network come from the Fox production studio. The percentage is expected to grow now that Walden and Newman control both sides.
Fox is the last of the Big Four to align the operations.
Years ago, rivals NBCUniversal, CBS Corp. and Walt Disney Co.'s ABC combined their networks and studios. That consolidation has led to a reduced appetite for programs produced by rival companies because networks typically give preferential treatment, and often even more viable time slots, to shows that they own.
The future of the Fox studio increasingly is tied to the fortunes of an improved Fox network.
“We want this company to succeed,” Newman said. “Dana and I have been here collectively for 50 years and we care a lot about this company. Having an important role, and a larger imprint, was very appealing. There is a lot more for us to do.”