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Low-profile News Corp. executive Tony Vinciquerra given starring role

He is put in charge of all the company's entertainment networks after proving himself a shrewd deal maker.

March 23, 2009|Meg James
  • Joining the company seven years ago, Vinciquerra was quickly pushed by Chernin into bigger roles.
Joining the company seven years ago, Vinciquerra was quickly pushed by… (Francine Orr / Los Angeles…)

News Corp. executives are famous for their swagger and bravado. But not Tony Vinciquerra.

"You won't get any witty banter out of me," he said matter-of-factly.

News Corp. Chief Executive Rupert Murdoch this month put Vinciquerra in charge of all the company's entertainment networks, including Fox Broadcasting and 30 cable channels, such as FX, Fox Sports and National Geographic. Known for keeping a low profile, the onetime television ad salesman won the nod after proving himself a shrewd deal maker.

Conservative pundits on Fox News project News Corp.'s pugnacious image, and Murdoch's tabloids the populist spirit animating its enterprise, but television is the financial heart of the company. Vinciquerra's appointment, triggered by the upcoming departure of Chief Operating Officer Peter Chernin, makes him the point person for a big chunk of News Corp.'s profit -- which is under pressure from a recession walloping the media giant's advertising-reliant business.

Joining the company seven years ago -- a newcomer by News Corp. standards -- Vinciquerra was quickly pushed by Chernin into bigger roles handling contentious negotiations with cable and satellite operators. His unflappable demeanor also made him a favorite to face Wall Street analysts, a job entrusted to few.

At the same time, however, Vinciquerra has been the enforcer of cost cuts, which have included the departure of numerous executives. Now the hardest is to come: He must grapple with a shifting business model for network television and taming the Internet, where users expect to get content free of charge.

News Corp. veterans said that some people might have underestimated Vinciquerra, 54, because he doesn't come across as particularly ambitious. "In a world of people who are busy positioning themselves and angling for the next thing, Tony is a guy who puts his head down and does the work," Chernin said.

Vinciquerra downplays his role. "I try not to be the smartest person in the room," he said. "I listen to the smart people in the room."

And there are some smart people in the room. Vinciquerra will now report directly to Murdoch, who, at 78, is assuming day-to-day control of operations as Chernin steps out of the picture.

Murdoch, who has little patience for the outsized egos of Hollywood, credited Vinciquerra for his role in making cable television the most profitable unit of News Corp. "Tony has been instrumental in growing our cable businesses both domestically and internationally, and has been responsible for negotiating many of our landmark carriage and broadcast deals," he said in a memo announcing the promotion.

One pivotal development marked Vinciquerra's skills. Two years ago he set out to launch the Big Ten Network despite stiff resistance from powerful cable operators. They refused to carry the channel, which provides Big Ten Conference football and basketball games, because Vinciquerra was demanding higher fees than they wanted to pay.

When big cable operators wouldn't play ball, Vinciquerra relied upon satellite operator DirecTV to carry the network. Then luck kicked in: On its first weekend of operation, the new network aired one of the biggest upsets in college football when underdog North Carolina's Appalachian State beat Michigan. The excitement got the Big Ten Network noticed, and soon it was available in 30 million homes. Last year, the country's biggest cable operators finally signed up. The network is now in 70 million homes, and profitable -- a remarkable feat in such a short time.

"The guy is hardworking," said Gail Berman, a former colleague at Fox who is now a television producer. "He has tremendous experience in the television business; he understands it from the ground up."

He had to work hard. The only son among four children, Vinciquerra was raised in a two-bedroom apartment in Albany, N.Y., sleeping on a foldout couch. His blue-collar beginnings included scooping ice cream, busing tables, digging ditches and sweeping up hair at his grandfather's barbershop.

"I had to earn my own way," he said.

While attending college, Vinciquerra took a job selling ads for a local radio station at $25 a pop and discovered a valuable technique for generating clients: He'd scour the classifieds for businesses that were hiring, figuring they had money to spend.

"I always tried to get in the way of the money," he said.

He jumped to the bigger leagues of TV ad sales and was running TV stations when he was in his 30s. In 1999, Vinciquerra was named chief operating officer at Hearst-Argyle Television in New York, one of the biggest station groups in the country. He worked to build the local newscasts and marketing strategies, said David J. Barrett, chief executive of Hearst-Argyle.

"Tony gets the 'show' part of show business and the 'business' part too," Barrett said.

But in 2001, business took a back seat. Vinciquerra was looking for a way to move to Los Angeles, where Toni Knight, who was to become his wife, owns an advertising sales firm.

"He was in love with Toni, and Peter Chernin came along and offered him a better job," Barrett said.

For a few months, Vinciquerra managed the business side of the Fox network. Then Chernin expanded Vinciquerra's duties by handing him the reins of Fox's entertainment cable channels. "He's strategic and analytical," Chernin said.

Unlike a lot of high-level Hollywood executives, however, Vinciquerra said he tries to keep grounded so he is not consumed by work. He skips the Hollywood party scene to make it home in time to read bedtime stories to his 4- and 2-year-old daughters.

"I try to remember that it's my job and not my life," he said. "If you can do that, then you can be extremely objective in the decisions you make."

meg.james@latimes.com

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