When Peter Chernin announced last month that he was departing News Corp after 12 years there as president, chairman Rupert Murdoch pointed to the departure as an opportunity for change.
On Thursday that change happened.
Murdoch announced a major restructuring of the Los Angeles-based Fox businesses that will reward Fox Searchlight president Peter Rice for the success of films like “Slumdog Millionaire” and “Juno,” slim down the entire operation and leave Fox Broadcasting entertainment chairman Peter Liguori out of a job. All to begin immediately.
The shake-up nonetheless leaves Fox with one of the most stable and practiced team of executives in the media and entertainment business.
Among the big changes: Hoping to cut down on the bureaucracy existing between the company’s studio properties — both film and TV — the Los Angeles-based creative production divisions will be combined under a single unit, headed by Jim Gianopulos and Tom Rothman, co-chairmen of Fox Filmed Entertainment.
Tony Vinciquerra, chairman of the Fox Networks Group, who oversees the distribution side — including the cable networks, the business aspects of Fox Broadcasting and Fox International Channels — will now also be in charge of programming the Fox network.
Rice — whose “Millionaire” was made for a mere $15 million, rescued from video obscurity at Warners, and has brought in more than $243 million so far worldwide — will exit his post at Searchlight and take on the role of chairman of entertainment, Fox Broadcasting, reporting to Vinciquerra.
He will be replaced jointly by Searchlight senior executives Nancy Utley and Steve Gilula, who will report to Gianopulos and Rothman. Claudia Lewis, president of production, remains in place.
President of entertainment Kevin Reilly, who worked under Liguori, also remains in place.
The shake-up fulfills Murdoch’s promise last month to rely on his experienced executives to fill in the gap left by Chernin, who will leave when his contract expires in June.
"We have — simply put — the best management team in the entertainment industry,” Murdoch said in a statement. “Today’s restructuring, by removing barriers between businesses, will enable us to better share ideas and resources, allowing us to make the most of this team and the talent that populates our ranks.”
But many expressed surprise that Ligouri, a talented executive who many believed had Murdoch’s support, was shown the door. Fox became the top-rated network among broadcasters last year for the first time, and continues to perform well on the strength of "American Idol."
Executives familiar with the thinking at Fox said that Murdoch had decided it was time to reward Rice, who has long been considered one of the billionaire’s golden boys with almost limitless potential at the company.
Murdoch wanted Rice to "spread his wings," said one executive, and that left no appropriate role for Liguori.
This year, Fox television has lost ground to its rivals. The network still leads for adults aged 18-49 with a 3.4 rating/9 share, according to recent Nielsen data. But CBS is now a close second, and remains No. 1 among total viewers, with an average of 11.8 million versus 9.3 million for second-place Fox.
This time last year, Fox was handily beating the competition, with a 4.4 rating versus a 3.1 for runners-up NBC and ABC.
Murdoch said: “Peter Liguori has been an outstanding Fox executive, not only in leading FBC for three seasons, but in his groundbreaking programming that helped build FX into a general entertainment leader.”