Fox's Stealth Man Goes Public

Among the News Corp. executives who gathered last week at the W Hotel in New York to announce the formation of Fox's My Network TV, Jack Abernethy's was likely the least recognizable face.

In the year since becoming CEO of Fox Television Stations, Abernethy seemed content to cede the spotlight to his more colorful bosses: former station-group chief Lachlan Murdoch and Murdoch's successor, the ever quotable Roger Ailes. Even Abernethy's chief lieutenant, station-group president Dennis Swanson, gets more press.

But since he and Fox were blindsided last month by the emergence of the new CW network, Abernethy has taken center stage in Fox's bid to fill the prime time hole this fall when nine of its stations lose their UPN affiliation. Appearing last Wednesday with Ailes, Swanson and News Corp. President/COO Peter Chernin, Abernethy outlined plans for an ambitious new programming service that will go head-to-head with The CW in the race to pick up orphaned UPN and WB affiliates.

Going to war

Behind the scenes, Abernethy played a key role in creating a new economic model for My Network, which will offer year-round, low-cost strip fare. But last week's unveiling capped an aggressive public campaign that began almost from the moment Abernethy awoke to news of The CW during last month's National Association of Television Programming Executives conference.

Abernethy immediately yanked UPN branding from Fox stations outside of prime time and froze first-run sales for Twentieth Television's Desire strip of English-language telenovelas. On Feb. 8, days before The CW revealed its affiliation terms, a leaked Abernethy memo blasted the new network's demand for reverse compensation and vowed that four of Fox's UPN affiliates would have no part of it.

Other groups considering CW affiliation began to echo the criticism, prompting a high-ranking studio executive to marvel at Abernethy's ability to turn the conversation from Fox's being ambushed to questions about The CW's viability.

Abernethy no doubt learned something about going to war with the competition from Ailes. He has worked with Ailes since the Fox News Channel (FNC) chief became president of CNBC in 1993.

Abernethy had been VP/CFO at CNBC since 1990, after climbing the finance and operations ranks at NBC stations. Ailes, however, wasn't immediately impressed.

“The first time I met Jack, he was in shorts and gym socks, heading out the door at 11 a.m. to play basketball,” Ailes recalls. “I'd been hired to take over a network that was a bit out of control. When he was introduced to me at that moment as the CFO, I was pretty concerned.”

A knack for building from scratch

Later that afternoon, Ailes ran the sweat-soaked CFO through some hoops of his own, quizzing him on the details of the business. Abernethy's “extraordinary grasp” of financial and personnel details and his eye for overlooked business opportunities convinced Ailes.

“I don't know how his jump shot is,” Ailes says, “but his business skills are great.” When Ailes left to launch FNC in 1996, Abernethy was the first of the 82 CNBC staffers he hired away.

At Fox, Abernethy saw an overlooked opportunity in satellite radio, which he considered a more appealing new medium than the popular dotcoms of the late 1990s. His deals with Sirius and other satellite carriers made the little-known FNC the most listened-to new channel and has resulted in a new Sirius deal for news feed and talk channels.

Having helped to create several channels already, Abernethy is eager to exercise his knack for building things from scratch. In addition to My Network, he hopes to launch upgraded station Web sites, which Fox plans to program with original content before year's end.

Abernethy continues to pursue the right mix of syndicated shows, consistent audience flow, better news product, and improved branding, marketing and sales. While the stations' corporate ties to FNC have helped in efforts to develop national news and information shows, Abernethy sees little demand among his stations for a national newscast now.

His goal for each station is a No. 1 or 2 ranking. So far, so good: Of the 26 markets where Fox operates—including the nine duopolies—his stations now finish first in nine and second in five.

“We're making progress, but there are a thousand moving parts,” says Abernethy. “The thing with this business is that you have to be decisive.”