Fox's Liguori Wants to Hold on to Reality Chief Darnell

AT TCA: With Writer's Strike on Horizon, Unscripted Series Seen as Back Up

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BEVERLY HILLS ( -- Holding court in blue jeans and a blazer, a relaxed and decidedly casual Fox entertainment President Kevin Reilly joined his boss, a similarly denim-clad Peter Liguori, to tout the Fox network schedule on Sunday.
Peter Liguori
Peter Liguori Credit: Fox

Actually, "tout" might be the wrong word. There was no laundry list of shows or stunts, no hype. Just a simple, "Any questions?"

It was a classic Harvey Weinstein gambit: "Why don't you make me an offer?" In other words, let the press negotiate against themselves; use no words that can later be used against you.

Elephant in the room
One could hardly blame them. The elephant in the room was the ongoing -- and, some would say, going poorly -- talks between the Writers Guild of America and the Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers.

Last week, producers' calls for a status quo agreement that would have included a study of how to pay writers was roundly rejected by the writers, with WGA negotiating committee chairman John Bowman calling that proposal "more of a stall than a study."

In the meantime, Mr. Liguori did some of his own stalling when asked about what preparations the network was making in the event of a strike, such as shoring up its reality TV executive ranks. In recent weeks, fourth-place rival NBC has been actively recruiting Fox's diminutive reality chief, Mike Darnell, whose contract is currently lapsed.

Unwilling to risk influencing the fraught negotiations with the writers or his own reality programming capo, Mr. Liguori would say only that "very complicated issues" were on the table with the scribes, and that Fox was "actively talking" with Mr. Darnell. He stopped short of saying that a deal had been reached with Fox's reality chief, but Mr. Liguori did say that the network looks "forward to Mike being with Fox for many more years" and that Mr. Darnell would make some sort of announcement this week.

Work stoppage plans
In a subsequent one-on-one interview with Advertising Age, Mr. Liguori was a bit more forthcoming, stressing that while "none of us want a strike," Fox was ready to make reality TV a "fair amount" of Fox's prime-time schedule in the event of a work stoppage. Said Mr. Liguori: "You prepare by looking at your annual inventory, that 15 hours of weekly programming, and working backwards, saying 'What do I have to fill?'"

As to how concerned News Corp. brass is about the current labor talks, Mr. Liguori noted gravely that "these negotiations are a different beast than any that have come before," owing to discussions about how to compensate creative artists and writers for work that appears online. But, he stressed, "we gotta get this resolved."

In selecting its new fall shows, Mr. Liguori said that unlike rival NBC, which has made it a requirement that every show have some sort of online component, "our only edict to writers is that digital must be part of our daily dialogue."

Fox ranked No. 1 among adults 18-49 for the third straight season, though it won that distinction by only four-tenths of a ratings point -- the widest margin for any network in five seasons. The neck-and-neck quality of the competition between the networks was highlighted as reporters quizzed Mr. Reilly about how he planned to exploit his insider knowledge of NBC's fall schedule to Fox's advantage.

"I'd prefer to have intimate knowledge of ABC's schedule," Mr. Reilly joked, to which Mr. Liguori quickly added, "Our sites are not set on the No. 4 network; our sites are set on the No. 1 network and putting distance between us and the No. 2 network [ABC] as possible."

Programming changes
Among the programming changes announced to try and keep Fox at the head of the pack:

  • Fox will pick up the new game show "Don't Forget the Lyrics!" for an additional 13 episodes. (It ranks No.1 in all key demos on Wednesday and Thursday nights.)

  • Gordon Ramsay's culinary abuse-a-thon "Hell's Kitchen" will again turn up on Fox's 2008 menu, as will a fourth season of "So You Think You Can Dance?" (The third season premiere of "Kitchen" cooked up a 3.6 rating and 10 share, with some 8 million viewers tuning in.)

  • For a show whose creator refers to himself as a "right-wing nut job," "24" is looking increasingly progressive: The never-stop-to-eat-or-micturate action hour will get a female U.S. president in Tony-winning actress Cherry Jones, and its season finale will be "carbon neutral." No word yet on whether "24" will become "torture neutral."
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