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How I Made It: Stephen Chao

He aims to stand out, even behind the scenes

August 10, 2008|Alana Semuels | Times Staff Writer

The gig: Chao, 52, is chief executive of WonderHowTo.com, which calls itself the world's largest catalog of free instruction videos. In the early 1990s he was president of Fox Television, where he helped create "Cops" and "America's Most Wanted." After working at Fox, he was president of USA Network, where he was responsible for bringing "Monk" to cable TV. He's divorced and has two sons, ages 14 and 17.

Education: Bachelor's degree in classics from Harvard in 1977 and a master's degree from Harvard Business School in 1981.

Pre-Hollywood jobs: Co-wrote a Fodor's travel guide for Turkey; shoveled manure on a farm in France; reported for the National Enquirer.

His secret to success in TV: Chao applied for jobs at the New York Times and Wall Street Journal after working for the Enquirer writing about UFOs and Farrah Fawcett. Both newspapers rejected him, but he was determined to be in media in some way, so he got a job at News Corp. as the vice president of acquisitions and corporate development. It wasn't long before he starting thinking up ideas for TV shows. "All of those years of knocking around and not getting what I wanted made me really driven."

Inspiration for 'America's Most Wanted': "I was thinking, 'Gee, those wanted posters are getting kind of yellow from the sun. I bet TV could do a better job of it.' "

Relationship with the boss: While giving a speech on standards that discussed violence and nudity at Fox, Chao hired a male model to strip, which enraged Rupert Murdoch. The stunt got him fired in 1992. "In my own denseness, I'm not sure I saw the firing coming. I thought it was a thoughtful speech. But some people were offended."

From riches to rags: After being fired, Chao worked at a McDonald's in Redondo Beach for six weeks, cleaning the dairy machine, making coffee, frying hash browns. "It was the hardest job I ever had."

On the jump from TV to new media: Because WonderHowTo indexes videos, rather than creating them, Chao had to learn to relinquish the editorial control he was used to from his days in television. "I concluded that there was no way even the most talented editorial staff could compete with the wild imagination of the Web."

Why his site is different: There are lots of online video sites, but if you're going to spend time on the Internet, Chao thinks how-to videos are the place to do it. "There's an inherent structure to a how-to: It has a beginning, middle and an end." WonderHowTo now has 151,638 videos and received more than 800,000 unique visitors in July.

Favorite videos: A how-to about taxidermy, another in which a woman teaches her cat to flush the toilet and one by a skin doctor on properly extracting blackheads.

Advice: "I'm not sure I'm a role model for anybody, but in Hollywood, there's an issue of persistence. It's cliched, but you really have to go after opportunities."

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alana.semuels@latimes.com

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