Fox's First lady New network chief would rather talk about profitability than gender

January 11, 1993|By David Zurawik | David Zurawik,Television Critic

Los Angeles -- Twenty-five years ago, Lucille S. Salhany started her career as a secretary at a TV station in Cleveland. Last week, she became the first woman to run a broadcast network when Rupert Murdoch named her chairman of the Fox Broadcasting Company.

That's some story arc, as they say out here in Hollywood.

The 46-year-old Salhany, who asks to be called Lucie, talked about that climb last week.

"It wasn't always easy," she said, in answer to repeated questions about being a woman executive in a male-dominated TV industry.

But there is another storyline Salhany was far more interested in discussing: Fox -- the only broadcast network to grow and consistently prosper in recent years -- suddenly finds itself facing substantial challenges halfway through what has not been a great season.

The day her appointment was announced, last Wednesday, Daily Variety carried a story headlined, "Turnover at Fox Gives Wall Street the Willies." Can Lucie Salhany steady the network of Bart Simpson and Al Bundy as it expands to seven nights a week this month and keep it on a profitable course for a fifth straight year?

"Priority one, of course, is to solidify our seven-nights schedule," she said. "As we move into Tuesday -- and you know what a competitive night that is -- we expect our affiliates' ratings to grow and their demographics to get stronger. The by-words at our company are expansion and growth. Do we face some challenges? Absolutely. And I couldn't be more excited about embracing them."

At a press conference and interview with Salhany, reporters wanted her to talk about being the first woman to run a TV network. But Salhany wanted to talk about how she is going to run Fox profitably.

Her story in the TV industry started in 1967 when she left Kent State before graduating to take a job at WKBF-TV in Cleveland as a secretary in the programming department. In 1972, she was named program director.

After three years in that job and four more as program director at WLVI-TV in Boston, she moved to Taft Broadcasting as a vice president for cable and TV programming. In 1985, she left Taft to take over as head of TV at Paramount. It is at Paramount that she really made her name, producing and distributing such first-run syndicated moneymakers as "The Arsenio Hall Show," "Star Trek: The Next Generation" and "Entertainment Tonight."

But that's the stuff of resumes, not the story of what it felt like to be one of the only women on such a ride.

"This is a difficult one for me," she said, "because I keep saying I think I got the job because of 25 years of experience, not because I'm a female.

"But, OK, I will say something about that. This morning when I got up, my two boys -- I have an 8-year-old and a 5-year-old -- were running in and out of the bedroom to talk to me, my husband's out of town, my 81-year-old mother is with me. It's kind of like Grand Central Station at my house. And I was trying to blow my hair dry. And it occurred to me the reason these jobs have been held by men is because they never had to blow their hair dry for a half hour. And maybe there was something to it. You know, I don't know."

While Salhany said the emphasis on gender "bothers" her, she also said, "But . . . don't kid yourself, I've used it. You know, I didn't come up here with my hair looking like it looked when I got out of bed this morning. And I put on a little more eye shadow than I normally do, and I lined my eyes. . . .

"But it bothers me . . . because I want to be respected, I want to be dealt with as an equal of men. I mean, I'm not any different. . . . I'm a professional and experienced."

Perhaps the best barometer of Salhany's professional stature was Wall Street's reaction to her appointment. Stock for News Corp., Fox's parent firm, lost 6 percent of its value Tuesday in the wake of the resignation of Jamie Kellner, Salhany's predecessor and the fourth top executive to leave Fox in the last year. It stabilized and started inching back by week's end with Salhany in place.

"Lucie is phenomenal. She's the perfect choice," a Wall Street analyst told Variety. But Wall Street is still waiting to see how Salhany deals with some of the challenges and problems facing the fourth network.

There is the matter of replacing Keenen Ivory Wayans, who recently left "In Living Color," one of Fox's most important shows. Many believe he's irreplaceable and the show is doomed without him. There are the millions of dollars invested in "Class of '96" and "Key West," the two series Fox is banking on to make its expansion to Tuesday nights -- starting next week -- successful. While "Class of '96" has great promise, "Key West" looks like a loser. There's the return to late-night with a big-budget "Chevy Chase" show launching in September against an already crowded field, likely to be further complicated by a new David Letterman show.

Salhany says not to worry: "In Living Color" will be back next year, Chevy Chase will be a big hit, and, while she expects some initial loss of audience as Fox expands to seven nights, the network will continue to grow.

She also believes Fox still has a great management team. "They're professional. They'll kill for Fox," she said. They're terrific guys that can carry us into the future."

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