Fox Family Prepares For Life After Cronin

Rich Cronin's troubled tenure at Fox Family Channel got off to a bumpy start two years ago, and it ended abruptly last week.

Neither Cronin nor Fox Family officials would comment on the specifics of his exit. The network issued press releases last week with the same two terse paragraphs, but different headlines. The first one said, "Cronin resigns," and the later one read, "Cronin departs." Either way, both releases said he was leaving to pursue other interests.

Cronin's exit raised a host of questions about Fox Family's future, not the least of which is who will permanently replace him.

His departure has also reopened speculation that Haim Saban, Fox Family Worldwide Inc.'s chairman, may sell his stake in the channel to News Corp. chairman Rupert Murdoch.

And it remains to be seen if, or how, Fox Family's programming course will change now that Cronin is gone. The network is an important asset, which Murdoch and Saban paid $1.9 billion for, and can't be allowed to founder with tumbling ratings.

Financially, it looks like Cronin is in the catbird seat, and his silence last week may have been necessary to ensure his exit payout.

He had three years left on a five-year contract with Fox Family that not only included a $1 million-per-year salary-more than even Saban-but a $4 million golden parachute, as well, according to testimony during court proceedings in December 1997.

At that time, his former employer, Viacom Inc. and its MTV Networks unit, successfully barred Cronin-a veteran of Nick at Nite and TV Land-from starting work as president and CEO of Fox Family until July 1998.

It is not known whether Cronin's Fox Family contract contains a noncompete clause, which would bar him from working for another cable network. However, Saban's contracts with other executives have contained such clauses.

Cronin also had stock options for 1 percent of Fox Kids Worldwide Inc., a company that Merrill Lynch & Co. valued at $1.8 billion two years ago.

All in all, Cronin's five-year package with Fox Family was assessed at up to $20 million during the court proceedings in 1997.

Sources close to Cronin said he and Saban-who has a reputation of being difficult to work for-were in conflict over what Fox Family should be.

"They both have different views on how to program to kids," the source said. "Haim, who had such success with [Mighty Morphin] Power Rangers on Fox Kids, wanted Fox Family to be action-oriented. Rich, with his background at Nick, wanted it to be campy, fun and playful. These are two very talented people with two very different visions of where the channel should go."

Until a permanent replacement for Cronin is named, Fox Family's programming and marketing departments will report to Fox Kids general manager Maureen Smith, as will Tracy Lawrence, Fox Family's newly promoted senior vice president and general manager. Fox Family's advertising and affiliate sales will report directly to Saban in the interim.

Sources said the writing was on the wall in terms of Cronin's departure because of Lawrence's recent promotion and the hiring of Cartoon Network veteran Rob Sorcher as head of programming for Fox Family a year ago. Sources also claimed that some executives who had been directly reporting to Cronin were suddenly reporting to Saban instead.

Two years ago, Cronin was given the massive task of totally relaunching The Family Channel, formerly owned by Pat Robertson and International Family Entertainment Inc., as a network aimed at kids during the day and families at night. All of Family Channel's programming, except The 700 Club, was scrapped.

"They tried to do too much, too fast," said Jerry McKenna, vice president of strategic marketing for Cable One Inc. "You can't expect to hit the mark with every show."

Cronin was at an immediate disadvantage from the get-go because MTVN succeeded in keeping him out of work for more than six months, stopping him from joining Fox Family until July, just weeks before the channel's relaunch.

As a result, it debuted with programming-much of it cheap reality-based shows from the Fox broadcast network mold-that Cronin was not involved with.

Worst of all, without such off-network fare as Diagnosis Murder, the network's ratings plummeted in its first year. Cronin argued that Fox Family was attracting a younger, under-50 demographic, as well as kids, but there weren't a lot of them. Although Fox Family has done pretty well with its original movies, its ratings suffered and ad sales dived.

Last year, Fox Family was down 25 percent in primetime compared with 1998, to a 0.9 from a 1.2, according to Nielsen Media Research. That decline has lessened. In the first quarter this year, Fox Family was down 11 percent in primetime, to a 0.8 from a 0.9.

"They seem to have stemmed the bleeding," said Ellen Oppenheim, senior vice president and media director at Foote, Cone & Belding.

Fox Family's ad sales dropped to $160.6 million in 1999 from $187.1 million in 1998, according to Paul Kagan Associates Inc. This year, Fox Family's ad sales are expected to rise again, to $185.8 million, Kagan projected.

Last fall, due to its poor performance, Fox Family came close to technical default on some $710 million in outstanding loans, but it was bailed out with a $125 million infusion from News Corp.'s Fox Broadcasting.

Most recently, Cronin and Sorcher were retooling Fox Family's programming to target a slightly older audience at night, with somewhat more adult-driven fare aimed at contemporary families.

But both Oppenheim and Laura Caraccioli, vice president and director of Starcom Entertainment, pointed out that because TV-viewing habits have changed, it's hard for any network to try to target families.

"It's such a difficult target to reach," Caraccioli said. "It's rare for families to sit down and watch television together. It's hard to come up with programming to satisfy the needs of a 10-year-old to a 34-year-old."

MediaCom Worldwide managing director Jon Mandel added: "The network's got problems because the programming people don't seem to be doing programming for programming's sake, but for the sake of the deal. And if you look at Fox Family's Web site, it's all promotional, as opposed to brand-building."

At its relaunch, Fox Family made a commitment to spend $500 million on programming over the pnext four years.

Cronin oversaw the launch of Fox Family's two digital networks, boyzChannel and girlzChannel, but they have struggled to get distribution.