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Mar 15

My Years in Purgatory, Part 1

In Brief—The author’s reminiscences on his years with Fox Broadcasting Company, the ups, downs and in-betweens, the philosophy, the management, the stars, the staff and the hiccups. Part 2 will be posted next week.

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 The Road to Burn-Out—

The photo on my 1994 passport makes me look at least ten years older than my 2004 passport photo. The two could easily be reversed to illustrate the aging process. But wait! I’m getting ahead of myself here.

In the fall of 1986, I was contacted by Fox Broadcasting Company (FBC) and told that I had been recommended for a job as the broadcast standards (BS&P) advisor in the new broadcasting company conservative tycoon Rupert Murdoch, formerly of Australia, was putting together. If I was interested I should contact the newly appointed company president, Jamie Kellner. Talk about good for the ego! As I was “on the beach” after my resignation from an ill-considered brief tenure with a Century City law firm, I jumped at the chance to do something for which I was eminently qualified. After all, the days of my anti-Vietnam War efforts were long gone.

With brash self-confidence, I made a list of recommendations I believed would help launch the new broadcasting endeavor. Apparently my presentation impressed Kellner because I was hired while FBC was assembling a staff that management hoped would challenge the old established networks, ABC, CBS and NBC. Everybody who was anybody in Hollywood said it couldn’t be done, but Murdoch and Barry Diller*, late of Paramount fame, thought otherwise. I figured it was worth the gamble in view of the management. FBC was a baby waiting to be born. Little did I realize what I was getting into.

*A friend once related witnessing one of Diller’s now-legendary tantrums during childhood. I was destined to be the target of one of the adult Diller’s well-honed tantrums during my tenure at FBC.

With only a few newly-hired people operating out of the old administration building on the Century City lot, my first of several desks over the course of my tenure was a low mahogany coffee table at one end of the office of the executive whose call led me to Fox. His secretary bore my presence with an impish sense-of-humor surpassed only by her efficiency. It was a less than impressive start, but at least it was a start that fattened my hungry wallet after my departure from the practice of law.

As expected, I had my own office and secretary during the eight years I spent working my buns off and loading up on the stress that showed in that 1994 passport photo. Over those eight years, my weeks averaged about eighty hours, fifty hours being practically a vacation week. On one occasion I covered a live show at midnight on New Year’s Eve with a temperature of 102. I arrived home and fell into bed at 2:00 A.M. And I wasn’t the Lone Ranger. I often wondered what kind of lives the other execs lived…if they had a life outside the office.

Scripts for the inaugural shows rolled in. Since I was the sole standards advisor in the early weeks, restricted to dealing with “young” programming executives half my age who had barely begun to shave, I wrote script reports that may have been too blunt in the belief that the programmers would edit my notes when they met with the producers. I soon learned that my reports were posted for the delight of all and sundry. That was fine with me because those reports were educating the new programmers on what was acceptable and what was not.

My Philosophy—

A word on my philosophy is in order here. One of several lessons I learned from my years at NBC and ABC was that smart bosses show what works while bad bosses show you what not to do. Another lesson is that reversing a decision by the show’s BS&P editor only leads to more work for the executive doing the reversing and a lesson to the producer to go over the head of the editor. A corollary is that it’s a mistake to second-guess the editor handling a show without knowing exactly what the issues are. At the core of my philosophy is the conviction that there is seldom the need to cut something as long as there is a way around the problem by exercising a little creativity. Most importantly, a boss should to treat the staff as respectfully as the boss would want to be treated…the Golden Rule, in effect.

As a confirmed cynic, I contend without reservation that I see broadcast standards as cheap insurance for management to insulate themselves from criticism from the FCC, congress, advertisers and the public. Executive thinking is to pay the editors as little as possible and be able to say, “Well, BS&P approved it. We’ll have a little talk with them and we guarantee that it won’t happen again.” But it always does. That’s the way the world works.

An illustration of the level of esteem given to BS&P is that I started receiving a bonus. Whoopie! Sounds great. What was unusual, however, was that nobody else in the department, indeed, everybody I talked to, received a bonus. I had gotten a raise earlier and assumed that it was warranted, but a bonus was more than I expected. My reaction was to call Kellner and thank him. In an “Oh, by the way” response, he apologized for not telling me earlier that I had been promoted from advisor to vice president of BS&P. I became one of the horde of Fox V.P.s. Knowing how upper management thinks, I have a solid suspicion that V.P. stripes were a substitute for money.

Now seems a good time to relate my take on bonuses. I believe that all departmental personnel contributed to the company’s success so all should share in any bonus awarded. Based on that philosophy, I shared my bonus with those who didn’t get one. By contrast, other execs did not look kindly on my action which may reflect on the reception I received from some in senior management. That paranoia aside, I am pleased to say that my philosophy has been passed on by a few of my former colleagues who now have departments of their own.

With that, I will end Part 1 and continue my sordid story in Part 2 next week. If, by chance you want a refresher on Part 1, track down just below the end of Part 2. There it is!

Comments or questions? Ask me.

8 comments

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  1. Donna

    I always wondered what it was like to work for an executive like that, and to be a vice president even! It doesn’t sound so great. I wonder if the whole media world is the same now as it was then -like a purgutory.

    1. Don Bay

      The TV industry is a moneyed world of Hollywood glitz, glamor and enormous egos masking a dog-eat-dog existence. In my case, it helped to be a lawyer with a standards background. They thought they were getting a corporate Yes-Man. What they got was an independent truth-teller and cynic. That world will never change.

      Part 1 was just the opener. Wait until you see Parts 2 and 3. It could have been longer, but I didn’t want to write a book and risk boring my readers to death. No doubt politics is similar in many ways.

  2. Linda

    I am glued to this series since you brought me over to Fox, first to freelance and then later permanently. I will add that one assistant you shared your bonus with remarked to me that she so appreciated your generosity.Your example spread to folks you don’t even know as some of us followed your lead and then some we shared our bonus with, passed it forward as they advanced. This is change. This is progress.

    One of your former assistants told me that she was surprised when you introduced her to someone as your “co-worker or colleague.” I remember her saying she stammered and told the person she was your assistant. I was new at Fox and smiled when she told me this story as it told me so much more about who you were and what kind of leader you would be.

    I remember seeing you make coffee in the mornings. That told me a lot, too.

    As far as those young programming execs, I was once in a green room having to listen to them chatter about who was turning thirty that year. Ugh.

    You are stirring up memories.

    1. Don Bay

      I feel like singing “Thanks for the Memory” even though many of the memories you have are not in my memory bank. Seems like I paid attention along the way. It’s encouraging to know that my bonus philosophy has been passed forward.

      One of your many admirable attributes is that I could always count on you to tell me exactly what you thought about an issue that came up in our departmental meetings. You didn’t hold a finger up to see which way the wind was blowing before you gave your view. That was a valuable attribute to the person sitting in my chair. It says a lot about your high integrity and who YOU are.

  3. Jim Newton

    Interesting reflections. I can’t imagine working in this corporate culture, but it feels like something in a movie. Good on you for resisting.

    I hope you will talk about the big P politics in that branch of Fox. I know what it is in Fox news.

    1. Don Bay

      I touched on the politics I encountered, but there was more I could have said. That aside, expanding on the subject may be a good idea. Thanks for the suggestion.

      There’s no question that corporations are a whole lot different from the practice of law. The politicians who claim that the corporate world is more efficient than government are spouting nonsense. That voters buy this malarkey shows how dense some people can be.

  4. Shelley Stockwell

    I love this article! I can’t wait for part 2. Great writing dear Don!

    1. Don Bay

      Thanks for the strokes, Shelley. Since you enjoyed this part, I suspect you’ll like Parts 2 and 3 as well. Right now, I’m weighing the possibility of adding a Part 4 dealing with the corporate politics. Stay tuned.

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