Crafting the branding message for the Fox television network is no easy task. While its fare has always been edgy, even the ideas that didn't get on air—such as televising an empty jetliner crashing in a desert, and last year's short-lived O.J. Simpson project—have created an image of Fox as a scrappy underdog fighting to get noticed.
The network now not only gets people's attention, it gets the people, too. Fox is regularly the No. 1 network in the advertiser-coveted adult 18-49 demographic, and with shows like American Idol and House is now known as a well-rounded programming outlet.
That reputation is due in part to Joe Earley. Having come up on the public relations side, Earley also took over marketing in August. And now he is tasked with helping to keep Fox on top and leading the brand into the new digital era—and getting it through the dark day after American Idol takes its final bow, whenever that will be.
After growing up in the Chicago area, Earley went to school at UCLA and wanted to get into the entertainment industry, but he also wanted a steady job. “I didn't want the life of a struggling actor in this town, and I didn't have any connections anyway,” he says.
Originally accepted as a math major and working in financial services while in school, Earley graduated and gravitated to the media, where he bounced around some low-level production jobs on in-store commercials and theme park production, trying to get his foot in the door.
An interview at a temp agency finally landed him his break, as he latched onto an office assistant job with producer Gale Anne Hurd.
Hurd, whose credits include the Terminator trilogy (from which Fox is doing a new television series this season), was working on both film and television projects at the time.
Then he landed an interview in the HBO publicity department, a role totally foreign to him. “I had no idea what that was,” he laughs. “I thought it was advertising, actually.”
But he learned quickly and soon was handling publicity for all West Coast events, such as premieres and screenings for HBO's slate of films such as Stalin, Barbarians at the Gate and The Josephine Baker Story.
After a three-year run learning the ropes as an assistant publicist, Earley joined Fox as a senior publicist in 1994. While he got to work on media-friendly shows like The Simpsons, he also kept working on films that weren't the high-end fare he had grown accustomed to at HBO, including a biopic on the breakup of Woody Allen's relationship with Mia Farrow.
“We were in that phase of ripped-from-the-headlines, trashy movies that did really well, but weren't exactly that easy to sell to the press,” he remembers.
Earley did enough to rise up the ranks at Fox, but his climb was not always easy. The network went through six presidents in nine years before former network chief Gail Berman and current network chairman Peter Liguori finally brought some calm. “We were just this ragtag group that all just hung in together and got through it,” Earley says.
In August, he was promoted to executive vice president of marketing and communications.
“To be effective, a network needs an executive who clearly understands where the disciplines of marketing and communications intersect,” says Liguori. “Joe is the unique executive who truly understands that business and showmanship are not mutually exclusive.”
Now Earley has been tasked with communicating a Fox brand that is the stuff of business-school case studies. From Fox's early days, which featured Alien Autopsy in 1995, to the current lineup including the seemingly unthinkable for Fox—quality, traditional sitcoms like Back to You—the brand has been nothing if not diverse.
“We definitely have changed who we are a couple of times,” Earley says. “But the brand is still very informed by Married…With Children and Alien Autopsy.”
Today, what constitutes a “Fox show” is very different from those titles, as the network has tried to round out its offerings. Earley says the conventional hit medical drama House is a perfect template for what Fox wants to be.
“Viewers question whether it was a Fox show when they first hear about it,” he says. “And it started out really slowly.”
But Earley also must deal with the reputation that Fox is wholly supported by ratings behemoth American Idol. “We try not to be defensive about it,” he says. “It's hard to be dismissed as just having Idol; on the other hand, we are glad we do. What good would it be to claim it's not a game-changer?”
But Fox is still Fox, and the network still takes some unconventional swings from time to time. Earley says last year's flirtation with letting O.J. Simpson explain how he would have killed his wife was the toughest crisis he has faced from a PR standpoint. Eventually, Fox dropped the project.
The network has had a risk management team for years to deal with such issues, especially as Earley feels Fox is held to a different standard. “If Kid Nation were on Fox, it would have been the end of the world as we know it,” he says.
But there is one image Earley is happy to remind everyone about—that despite failing to get much traction in the fall even with less baseball to disrupt the schedule, the network is now simply expected to win the season in the 18-49 demo.
Despite that reputation, Earley says he and the rest of the Fox execs who have been through the building stages never act like front-runners. “You would not know it walking these halls,” he says. “We still feel like we have to be scrappy. We are still the underdog.”
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