Kevin Reilly reflects on move to Fox

Times Staff Writer

In his first press major appearance since leaving as NBC’s president of entertainment for the same post at Fox, Kevin Reilly said that he can honestly say it’s better to be first place among prized 18- to 49-year-old viewers than in fourth.

“The good news is, I’m not getting behind the wheel feeling like the wheels are going to come off,” said Reilly, who took over at NBC as it was trying to dig out of the ratings crater created by the end of “Friends.”

Reilly was joined onstage Sunday morning at the semiannual press tour in Beverly Hills by Peter Liguori, who was recently bumped up to chairman to make room for Reilly’s new job. The two executives, who worked together while jump-starting the cable channel FX years ago, have remained friends — even when they were fierce competitors over the last several years.

“We’re one team,” Liguori said. “This relationship has worked very, very well because, first of all, we can laugh at each other. We certainly have healthy egos.”

Reilly then interrupted Liguori, saying, “His has gotten much, much bigger since cable, I can tell you that.”

Reilly was pressed about his hasty exit from NBC, which was prompted by the arrival of Ben Silverman, now the network’s co-chairman of entertainment. NBC officials have repeatedly said Reilly was not fired from their network.

“No one is fired in Hollywood; no show is ever canceled,” said a jean-clad and visibly relaxed Reilly, who added that in the end the separation was “equitable” and he harbors no bitterness.

Reilly also faced a number of questions about his unusual circumstance in now battling shows he put on the fall schedule of a Fox competitor. The executive, known for his talents as a network programmer and as a diplomatic speaker, chose his words carefully.

“I love the talent involved in those shows,” said Reilly. “I want the best for them…. I don’t have torn emotions about it.”

Liguori was more direct. “I want them all to be bloody failures,” he said.

In addition to standing behind ratings-challenged critical darlings like “Friday Night Lights,” Reilly while at NBC was behind three of the 10 shows that were awarded Emmy nominations in either the outstanding comedy or drama series category last week — “30 Rock,” “The Office” and “Heroes.”

As much of the questioning centered on Reilly’s past association with NBC, Liguori reminded the journalists that the day’s focus was on Fox.

“Our sights are not set on the No. 4 network,” said Liguori. “Our sights are set on the No. 1 network and creating a greater distance between us and the No. 2 network.”

A particular area of focus, said Liguori, as Fox heads into the new fall season, will be reversing its traditional fourth-quarter ratings swoon. Of immediate help this year will be its reduced commitment to the Major League Baseball playoffs. Last year, Fox had to manage up to 26 possible program preemptions, but this year that figure is around 14.

“Who’d say no to the World Series? It’s great television,” said Liguori. But “the single biggest thing that is going to help us in the fourth quarter is great programming.”

Fox has high hopes for several of its new fall shows, including a traditional sitcom called “Back to You,” starring Kelsey Grammer and Patricia Heaton, and a cop drama set in post-Katrina New Orleans called “K-Ville.”