Plenty of kids have pen pals growing up. Not many can say they exchanged letters with the creator of one of the most popular television shows in history.
But Dan Harrison, Fox’s new executive VP of strategic program planning, did. As a teenager, the avid M*A*S*H fan sent a letter to 20th Century Fox Television, and series creator Larry Gelbart responded. The two kept up a correspondence over the next 25 years, with Gelbart teaching Harrison about the creative process of making a TV show and even visiting the high schooler at his home in Schenectady, N.Y.
Harrison, now 42, credits Gelbart with igniting his passion for television as well as introducing him to people in the business (like Fox Broadcasting cofounder Barry Diller and television writers Ben Starr and Stanley Ralph Ross), connections that landed him a summer internship at 20th Century Fox TV syndication in college.
While Gelbart opened the door, it’s Harrison’s adeptness with technology that has helped him stand out in his career. During that internship, he was the first in the office to use a Macintosh computer to produce marketing materials, which earned him freelance work at 20th TV throughout college. At NBC in the late 1990s, Harrison implemented a new scheduling system and wrote a memo about what the Internet could mean for CNBC that caught the attention of General Electric CEO Jack Welch.
“I have generally found a way to combine technology and innovation with my role, regardless of the role,” Harrison says.
But the hallmark of his career is the importance of relationships he has forged along the way. Harrison has stayed close with most of his former bosses, including Preston Beckman, Fox executive VP of strategic program planning and research (and formerly of NBC), who hired Harrison to be his successor in January. And there are those contacts Gelbart introduced him to, like Starr, with whom he’s had a standing lunch date every Saturday for 20 years. He even met his wife, Libby, as a result of the NBCUniversal merger (he was working for NBC at the time, she for Vivendi).
Starr describes Harrison as someone who “knows everything about everything.” In addition to programming a mainframe computer at age 10 and earning a Harvard law degree, Harrison is also a published author, of the Andy Griffith Show guide Inside Mayberry. Though Starr adds that Harrison is “very modest about it— there’s no braggadocio with this guy.”
Beckman cites that mensch-like character, as well as Harrison’s love of television and scheduling, as reasons for hiring the exec to rejoin him at Fox. “All of us who do this are the same person,” Beckman says. “Dan is cut from that cloth.”
That includes a love of baseball (the statistics-heavy sport tends to be a favorite of TV schedulers), though Harrison’s affinity for the New York Yankees and Beckman’s for the Mets makes for a friendly inter-office rivalry.
In addition to the opportunity to rejoin Beckman, Harrison, who most recently worked for CBS, was intrigued about contributing to the success of Fox, a network that the economics major wrote his senior thesis about in college.
“I had a very corporate, strategic role at CBS,” Harrison says. “You don’t get your hands quite as dirty as you do in an operational role. These roles, being the head of scheduling at a network, don’t come up all that often.”
As Beckman prepares to officially take on his new advisory role at Fox in June, Harrison is focused on the continued performance of American Idol, hoping for a sophomore bounce in ratings for The X Factor and the task of refreshing the network’s drama coffers as the long-running House retires.
Looking back, Harrison counts success in being a part of the “Must-See TV” era at NBC, but he also values having been a part of seven network start-ups, including turning around Bravo, experiences that gave him a stay-hungry mentality that will serve him well at Fox.
“It’s good to be in the trenches and go through those times because then you can appreciate the work that needs to get done to refresh and renew or to maintain,” Harrison says. “If you only work during the good times, you don’t understand how hard it is to get there.”
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