ANALYSIS: Vinciquerra and Rice Take Over a Still-Strong Fox

As Fox Broadcasting’s programming unit welcomes two new chiefs, Fox Networks Group Chairman Tony Vinciquerra and new Fox Broadcasting Entertainment Chairman Peter Rice, the network isn’t exactly in need of a big fix.

Fox is expected to end the season with the fifth-straight ratings crown in the 18-49-year-old key advertiser demographic and last year took top honors in the total viewers category for the first time.

Still, much of Fox’s success is attributable to American Idol, which while still the 800 lb gorilla of broadcast television has seen ratings erosion for the last few years. It now reaches an average audience of 26 million.

“Fox is the highest rated network. What else can they do?” says Brad Adgate, senior VP, research at ad agency Horizon Media.

Priority number one for incoming entertainment chairman Rice, will likely be finding something to replace Idol when it inevitably fades.

“They’ve always relied on Idol to pull them up by the bootstraps and you can’t constantly rely on that. I think his biggest thing is to be looking at Fox without Idol,” Adgate says, adding that Friday nights also need a boost on Fox, much as they do on other networks.

News Corp.’s move Thursday night to install former Fox Searchlight Pictures chief Rice as entertainment chairman at the network and hand new broadcast responsibilities to cable chief Vinciquerra is widely seen as a reward for the executives’ successful runs in their businesses to this point.

Rice’s successful movie run culminated in thus year’s Oscar-best picture winner, Slumdog Millionaire. Rice has also been touted in reports as a possible number two to News Corp. chairman and CEO Rupert Murdoch down the line. The job is said to be a way of keeping Rice from moving to another Hollywood studio.

The changes, which also see movie division chiefs Jim Gianopulos and Tom Rothman take charge of film and TV production were triggered by Peter Chernin’s decision, a month ago, to step down as president and chief operating officer of News Corp.

Rice is replacing Peter Liguori, an executive who enjoyed popularity among the Fox ranks, the creative community and ad buyers in his five years running the network.

Reaction in the first 24 hours since Liguori’s ouster and his replacement by Rice has largely been sheer surprise among the industry.

At least one executive from the ad world, with roots in network TV, says he welcomes Rice, while admitting he is saddened by the loss of popular Liguori. When asked about the Liguori-Rice switch, Peter Tortorici, president of Group M entertainment, says “they’re both fantastic executives.”

“Peter Rice has done an incredible job at Searchlight and has really defined what a mini-major studio can look like,” says Tortorici, a former CBS entertainment president, adding, “He [Rice] has the skills to work in film or TV, the ability to think outside the box. Look at his track record, Juno, and Slumdog.”

That’s not to say Tortorici isn’t saddened by the loss of Liguori. “I mourn the fact that Peter Rice’s moment has come at the expense of Peter Liguori, because he is a terrific gentleman,” he says.

Another advertising executive who did not wish to be named says they were shocked by Liguori’s removal in light of the network's performance.

Tortorici's company, Group M Entertainment, helps marketers gain an entree into the world of Hollywood through branded entertainment initiatives. When asked if advertisers ought to be concerned about their upcoming projects being off-loaded as part of the shake-up, he pointed to previous entertainment heads who have proceeded with their current slate on arrival.

ABC Entertainment Group, Steve McPherson, parachuted in to the network in April 2004, just before the upfront, inheriting Susan Lyne’s picks, which included Desperate Housewives and Lost. Liguori himself took over from predecessor Gail Berman in 2005 and helped make House into a hit. Liguori is also credited with keeping American Idol fresh for many seasons.

As far as what comes next for Liguori, Tortorici says “he’s the kind of guy that will land on his feet.”

Liguori helped a number of shows gain a toehold on the schedule. They include Prison Break, Bones,Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles and Fringe.

If anything, Horizon Medias Adgate says Liguori should be praised, at the very least, for leaving alone elements that are working such as the long running Sunday night animation block. “I thought that they [Liguori and entertainment president Kevin Reilly] did a pretty nice job with a pretty successful network,” Adgate says. “At the very least he was smart enough to leave things alone.”

Liguori’s pink slip was undoubtedly due in part to the upcoming expiration of his contract, as recessional headwinds wreak havoc on the entertainment industry. Contract expirations and relentless cost cuttings are remapping Hollywoods power structure.  News Corp. president Peter Chernin is busy setting up a production company. Before the News Corp. shake-up, other conglomerates were streamlining their creative operations.

Recently, ABC merged its studio with its TV production business, handing Steve McPherson responsibility for both sides under a new ABC Entertainment Group banner while sidelining ABC studios president Mark Pedowitz as an advisor. In January, NBC Universal combined its network production operations with those of Universal Media Studios.