Stephen Chao, who only eight weeks ago was named president of Fox Television Stations, was summarily fired by Rupert Murdoch over the weekend after he hired a male model to strip in front of company executives and others during a management conference in Aspen, Colo.
Chao, 36, was giving a speech on censorship and television to a roomful of managers from Murdoch's News Corp., Fox's parent company, when to illustrate a point he had a model come out on stage and remove his clothes. The surprise act so enraged Murdoch that he immediately afterward told Chao he was dismissed.
Murdoch was apparently all the more embarrassed because the incident occurred in front of several high-profile guests, including Secretary of Defense Richard Cheney, who was standing only a few feet away from the stripper.
Chao was delivering his remarks as part of a panel discussion on "The Threat to Democratic Capitalism Posed by Modern Culture." Other panelists included Lynne V. Cheney, chairwoman of the National Endowment of the Humanities and the wife of Richard Cheney, plus three prominent neo-conservative intellectuals: conservative critic and commentator Irving Kristol, National Review Editor John O'Sullivan and movie critic and author Michael Medved.
The firing stunned News Corp. executives because Chao and Murdoch had a close relationship going back several years--to when Chao first worked for Murdoch as a vice president of acquisitions.
Chao had been considered a fast riser in Murdoch's Fox Inc. He was the executive credited with overseeing the development of such Fox hits as "America's Most Wanted," "Cops" and "Studs."
Murdoch, speaking at a wrap-up session at the conference Saturday morning, said of the incident, "Sometimes the hardest job a captain has is to terminate his best lieutenant. But one thing this company has to stand for is that there are limits."
Chao declined comment. According to conference participants, Chao's speech touched on several themes, including what he said was the false impression that television shows are created by people in a vacuum.
Instead, he noted, producers feel pressures from all sides. He cited as an example the fact that the program "Cops" periodically has to shift production away from the East Coast because viewers complain that too many black criminals appear.
Chao's speech also alluded to an incident in Holland where one TV station broadcast a picture of a nude woman for 24 hours in order to initiate a debate about censorship and civil liberties and what is socially acceptable for TV to show.
Chao was responding to Kristol's earlier remarks that democratic capitalism was being undermined by Hollywood messages, television in particular. Kristol's son, William, is Vice President Dan Quayle's chief of staff. Dennis Petroskey, a Fox spokesman, said Chao's firing was a private company matter and declined further elaboration.
Earlier this year, Chao was put in charge of organizing Fox News Service, the fourth network's planned entry into the network news business. Among his goals was developing a prime-time news magazine for Fox.
It was in his role as head of the seven company-owned TV stations, including KTTV Channel 11 in Los Angeles, that Chao became a senior member of the team that Murdoch has been putting in place since the departure of former Chairman Barry Diller last February.
The stations, which cover 22% of the country, are the most reliable profit center at the company. They are expected to post profits of about $165 million this year on revenue of about $545 million.
Chao had been in the job only a couple of months, taking over from Greg Nathanson, who had quit in protest after Murdoch gave Chao the responsibility for the local news operations at the stations. Nathanson last week was named general manager of KTLA-TV Channel 5.
Fox did not immediately name a successor to Chao.