SHOW-BIZ SUCCESS HAS MANY FATHERS, but failure is an orphan. Just look at Fox entertainment television. When ratings tanked during November sweeps and Rupert Murdoch talked about the unit's “very disappointing year” in his staff Christmas message, honchos Sandy Grushow and Gail Berman were said to have their necks on the chopping block. Then Fox grew its audience by 58 percent during February sweeps and, for the first time in its 17-year existence, won the pivotal, advertiser-prized 18-to-49 demographic. Suddenly, Grushow and Berman were showing off swelled heads.
It won't be the last time that top suits get all the credit for a dramatic network turnaround. But what a crock that Grushow and Berman, in a conference call last week with the TV press (whose members seemed more focused on giving casting advice for 24 than grilling the Fox duo), didn't even have the courtesy to name names other than their own. Instead, they hailed that old saw “teamwork.” Stranger still that it took NBC rival Jeff Zucker to credit (or blame?) others for shepherding that misogynist marvel Joe Millionaire or exploiting that freak show American Idol, the two humilitainment linchpins of the sweeps win.
So let's out-Fox everyone and out the trio really responsible, one by one:
It was Rupert Murdoch's second oldest kid, Elisabeth, who, Fox insiders tell the Weekly, kept telling U.S. executives that Simon Fuller's 2001 British monster hit Pop Idol would do just as well in America. Supposedly, Grushow and Berman shrugged her off. Finally, these sources say, it took Elisabeth's nagging Daddy, and a direct order from Rupert himself, to get American Idol launched. Only after it scored a huge audience did the news come out that Berman worked to make sure the U.K. import was properly Americanized.
While 34-year-old Elisabeth, formerly head of programming at the family-owned BSkyB, is considered the smartest of 71-year-old Murdoch's four adult children, she is only third in the line of succession behind Lachlan, 31, and James, 30. This spring, Elisabeth's reality show Spellbound debuts on the Fox network. Described by her as “cringe-worthy television but fantastic,” it takes three hot babes and hypnotizes them into believing that an un-hot guy is their perfect mate.
Though Fox has been trying its best to keep it a secret, Joe Millionaire is the brainchild not of Fox's new TV team but that of a Barry Diller throwback. That's how long Mike Darnell's been at the network. As the reality guru, the 40-year-old exchild actor earned everyone's enmity for greenlighting all those When Animals Attack shockumentaries that — tsk, tsk — helped coarsen American culture.
Back in 2000, Grushow swore off unscripted sensationalism, saying, “I'd rather fail with quality than succeed with garbage.” Even with the price tag for the average prime-time drama costing $2 million an episode, and his Fox prime-time schedule failing, Grushow was horrified to see hit show Who Wants To Marry a Multi-Millionaire (which Darnell thought up during his wife's cousin's wedding) bitch-slapped by the critics. Grushow reportedly sold out Darnell at the first sign of trouble. Then Grushow ordered only six episodes of Darnell's next blockbuster, Temptation Island. By the time Darnell scored mega-ratings with Joe Millionaire, even News Corp. president Peter Chernin was hopping on the bandwagon of hosannas.
Yet last week Darnell was not just conspicuously absent from the Fox conference call with the TV press, but his name wasn't raised by Grushow or Berman (until a lone reporter called them on it). One insider suggests Grushow especially might have been nervous because, a few weeks earlier, Darnell had been labeled “the most influential man working in television at the moment” in a fawning profile by the Washington Post.
There's no more controversial executive occupying a corporate network job than Beckman, the 20-year NBC vet who brought his “kill and win” style of guerrilla scheduling to Fox Broadcasting in June 2000 as executive vice president for strategic program planning. Of the three, his devilish persona deserves the most ink.
Beckman's so-called genius (only in the lunacy of network television does doing so little often mean so much) was to construct a midseason schedule that spread American Idol and Joe Millionaire over Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday to put some heat behind the network's scripted shows. Idol jump-started That '70s Show and Bernie Mac and 24 (the last up 26 percent alone) while Joe helped ignite Boston Public. The result was that, including Sunday-night success The Simpsons, Fox solidly won four nights.
Conan O'Brien fans may recognize Beckman's name from Late Night comedy bits. The Parents Television Council says Beckman singlehandedly dismantled the 8 p.m. “Family Hour” by scheduling adult series like Friends and Mad About You in the sacrosanct time slot. And Just Shoot Me! fans recall that “weird and, at times, a bit scary” former mental patient posing as Woody Allen in the 1997 “My Dinner With Woody” episode. That was executive producer Steven Levitan's way of getting back at the NBC scheduling guru for not just hating the show's pilot and dissing it openly but also giving it the Wednesday, 9:30 p.m. time slot, which was then NBC's equivalent of dead air.
Beckman was former NBC entertainment president Warren Littlefield's Mini-Me (although some saw it as the other way around, saying Beckman talked Littlefield into that disastrous schedule of 18 sitcoms over four nights). Both red-headed, both bearded, both “not one of those TV guys” (that is, Les Moonves, Ted Harbert and Jon Feltheimer) who played golf together at the Riviera, they were an inseparable team. Until the day they talked themselves into thinking they could actually replace then NBC West Coast head Don Ohlmeyer.
Littlefield was pushed out not long after the attempted palace coup. Ohlmeyer, too, left. Replacement Scott Sassa, asked by a friend how long before Beckman would be fired, tore a page from Hollywood history and replied: “When he was at 20th Century Fox, Barry Diller once was asked, 'Why do you have Jonathan Dolgen when you're already the toughest guy around?' And Barry said, 'Even I have to have my assholes.'”
It wasn't until March of 2000 that news leaked about Beckman's leaving NBC when his contract ran out in June. He didn't have another job lined up. Today, Garth Ancier claims credit for going to Sassa and demanding that Beckman be ousted.
But was NBC outfoxed? The Weekly has learned that soon after Ancier took over, Fox began wooing Beckman to jump ship.
Last week, Grushow and Berman left it again to Zucker to predict that Fox could end up winning the year among young adults. But was Fox's February success a fluke? Overnight ratings show its new reality series in the Joe Millionaire time slot, Married by America, finished last in its time slot. Now, who's going to claim credit for that?