Jack AbernethyTribute Video
Prompt Jack Abernethy's longtime colleagues for words to describe the CEO of Fox Television Stations, and you'll hear about him being smart and decisive, a dedicated father, a man with a sharp sense of humor, a savvy dealmaker, a guy fit enough to chase down someone half his age. Words you don't hear about Jack Abernethy: Chatty. Verbose. Long-winded.
His friends echo those old E.F. Hutton commercials when describing him. "Jack is the kind of man who doesn't say a lot, but when he speaks, he's really worth listening to," says Gordon Smith, National Association of Broadcasters president and CEO. "He cuts to the core of the issue and is creative in finding a solution."
One might not associate creativity with a guy who rose through the ranks based on his knack for finance, but figuring out creative solutions-from deploying a six-week trial for shows starring Wendy Williams and Bethenny Frankel to carving out local identities and successful business models for a vast batch of independent-minded TV stations-is mentioned frequently as well."
"Jack doesn't give anything away, but it's always a pleasure to deal with someone who's really smart, gets it and totally thinks outside the box," says Mort Marcus, copresident of Debmar-Mercury.
Raised in Kingston, N.Y., Abernethy was actually on course to work on Wall Street. He attended New York University's business school in lower Manhattan, saw firsthand how The Street worked and was not impressed. "I just found Wall Street boring," he says. "Everybody went to Wall Street, but I wanted to be part of something less obscure than numbers and markets."
Abernethy found a job in the finance side at NBC's owned stations in 1980. He loved the technology, the local news and the dynamism of live TV. "I fell in love with the business about a week in, " he says.
Abernethy has been elemental to several landmark launches in the television business. He came on board at CNBC during its first year and played a key role in shaping the channel. When then-CNBC president Roger Ailes left to launch Fox News Channel in 1996, he took Abernethy, his CFO, with him. Abernethy mentions the "absolute rush" he gets from launching networks, though he concedes "it's usually more pleasurable when they succeed."
The TV executive picked up life lessons from his fellow B&C Hall of Famer Ailes that serve him well in overseeing a group of stations requiring loads of local news and fresh programming.
"One was a sense of being willing to take chances, and perhaps fail," Abernethy says. "I'd been in situations where failure was punished, so people are less willing to try things. With Fox News, there was a real sense of, let's do this. If it doesn't work, let's fix it quickly and move on. I try to impart that culture on the stations."
Abernethy also played a vital role in evolving the MyNetworkTV stations, hatched on the fly following the dissolution of the UPN network, into a viable business. His approach isn't all dollars and cents. A testament to Abernethy's creative side, he brainstormed the concept for goofy MyNet mascot "C. More"- the giant-eyed, TV-addicted, anthropomorphic logo dude who helps give the stations a local identity and personality. "C. More" not only graces screens, but turns up at malls and basketball games to meet the public and remind them to tune into the local MyNet station.
Of course, creating a new TV icon has its downside. "'C. More' has been angling for his own show," Abernethy says, "like everyone else."
If anyone could make a successful series out of a Law & Order-loving, animated slacker in enormous high-tops, it is Abernethy. The Fox Stations chief is credited with embracing the revolutionary limited-trial model that made a TV star out of Wendy Williams, among others. Abernethy, who also oversees Twentieth Television, says the six-week test allows the principals to take more risks. Debmar-Mercury's chiefs say Abernethy has changed the way TV shows are birthed. "It was mostly studio vs. broadcaster, with each side trying to beat the other," says Ira Bernstein, copresident. "With Jack, it's a true partnership."
Wendy Williams will also vouch, quite vociferously, for Abernethy having a partner's back. "Jack believes in talent and believes in risk-taking," she says. "He's one of the greats that made my show happen. From the beginning, his belief in my show was unwavering."
Abernethy was also the point man in bringing Fox back into the NAB fold two years ago, after it had departed the influential trade association in 1999, giving the NAB considerably more clout on policy matters, such as retransmission consent and preserving broadcast spectrum. He also lent his wisdom to the NAB's executive committee, giving Smith a trusted confidante. "Jack's insights are of enormous value to the entire industry as we develop policy," Smith says. "Having Fox back with the NAB gives our message on Capitol Hill a lot more swat."
When he's not helping up the swat in Washington or setting Fox Stations strategy in New York, Abernethy enjoys watching his beloved New York Jets, hanging out with his sons and shaping up for the annual New York City Triathlon. Extreme fitness has been a lifelong trademark for Abernethy. He was a soccer goalkeeper at Georgetown University, though, true to character, he downplays the accomplishment. "It was me and a bunch of European kids who used to smoke cigarettes on the sidelines," he recalls.
You might also find him at some of New York's trendier nightclubs, navigating the velvet ropes to pop in on a Wendy Williams Show party.
Williams says big television executives typically get a courtesy invitation, with the understanding that they'll never actually attend. Abernethy is a different story.
"You don't necessarily expect a guy in Jack's position to show up," she says. "But he shows up in full club mode, ready to party." Seeing someone of his stature at the event, Williams adds, is a huge kick for her staffers.
Harboring no regrets about skipping a life on Wall Street, Abernethy is just happy to have something interesting to talk about when someone asks about work. "You go to parties with friends-successful lawyers, Wall Street people-and no one wants to talk about work except me," Abernethy says. "It was true back then, and it's true now." --Michael Malone