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Barry Diller Took Fox Network From Ridicule to Respect

February 26, 1992|RICK DU BROW

There has been only one era of the Fox television network--the Barry Diller era.

When he launched the long-shot "fourth network" in October, 1986, with the late-night Joan Rivers talk show, which ultimately failed, Diller was shooting for his greatest achievement, joining the historic handful of executives who pulled off the successful creation of an influential national broadcast organization.

Beyond such names as NBC's David Sarnoff, CBS' William Paley and ABC's Leonard Goldenson--and Diller's contemporary equal as a TV visionary, Ted Turner--there were hardly any lasting precedents.

Diller, who stunned Hollywood and the business world with his resignation Monday as chairman of Fox Inc., knew precisely what he was doing from the time he launched his little network. At a party at his house for Paley, about the time that the Fox Broadcasting Co. was getting under way, he looked at the CBS leader and told us:

"No one will ever again build a network like his. Rather than a complete, old-style network, we will be, more accurately, networking."

That's what the Fox network did and still does--providing a minimal news service thus far, but supplying a growing number of entertainment shows and broadcast nights for more than 100 stations. Diller thus became invaluable to many small UHF stations who were able to build their franchises because of his programming.

While the praises flowed the last few days for his accomplishments, the fact is--as Diller has stated--that most of the established broadcast powers wanted him and Fox to fail. Known for his tough, hands-on style of management, he realistically positioned Fox as an upstart sniper that could smell blood in the eroding of traditional network power.

Some performers, such as NBC's David Letterman, openly ridiculed Fox in its earlier days. One of Diller's early stars and his first Emmy winner, Tracey Ullman, brashly and wittily took on Letterman on his own show, defending her brand-new network.

In a strong sense, Diller was facing the same kind of condescension and bad wishes that greeted Goldenson from NBC and CBS when he launched the then-tiny ABC as a network in the 1950s. Sarnoff once insulted ABC in an incredible manner by suggesting to Goldenson that he rerun shows of the two larger networks.

It is no small irony that ABC and Fox now are both flourishing and profitable at a time when both NBC and CBS are losing money--and, according to some insiders, might be candidates for a takeover bid by Diller.

The established networks also ridiculed and insulted Turner's CNN when it started up a decade ago. Now, it, too, is flourishing as NBC and CBS are gasping for survival.

ABC, Fox, Turner, underdogs all, are the new primary forces of commercial TV.

Like Goldenson, who used low-budget Western series to compete in ABC's early years--because CBS and NBC had most of the great broadcast performers tied up--Diller also had to find his own weapons that would be wholly different in image from the older networks.

Goldenson was often accused of lowering the taste and standards of TV in ABC's fledgling days with his horse operas and routine cop series. And Diller, too, found himself facing his toughest, most unrelenting--and most justified--criticism by shooting for the 18-to-34 male audience with frequently vulgar hits such as "Married . . . With Children" and sensational, tabloid-style reality series.

This was ironic because beyond the murderously tough executive style for which Diller is known, he is widely regarded as a man of great personal sophistication and taste. But as the architect of Fox TV, he was ultimately the pragmatic bottom-liner in his programming.

In this sense, one suspects he was not unlike Grant Tinker, who helped rebuild NBC with the help of such shows as "The A-Team," which he admits was not to his personal taste.

The flip side is that, in its short but explosive life as a new network competitor, Fox, under Diller, has also broadcast a number of genuinely innovative series, among them "The Simpsons," "The Tracey Ullman Show," "In Living Color," "Roc," "Cops" and "Beverly Hills, 90210."

Diller knew he had to be different. Once, watching the off-the-wall series "Twin Peaks," he wondered to himself what it was doing on ABC when it should have been on Fox.

He also might have had a late-night staple--which Fox never has established--if he had hung on to Arsenio Hall, a fill-in host after Rivers' departure.

If Diller succeeded mightily by establishing Fox against heavy odds--the "fourth network" concept had been a dream of others for years--the racy content of some his shows and the breathless sensationalism of several of his reality series had what many regard as a strong negative impact on TV overall.

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