Baseball has been very, very good to Jeff Shell. A fan of the Los Angeles Dodgers since childhood, he revels in the fact that he oversees the team and the stadium the team plays in.
Sports has proved a staple of Shell's career. When he came to News Corp. in 1994, one of his first tasks was to develop a network of regional cable sports channels that now number 21 and boast more than 72 million viewers.
As president of FOX Sports Networks, Shell crafted Fox's one-third, $50 million investment in the Golf Channel in 1996 (that became 30.9% on Feb. 25 when partner Comcast Corp. raised its 40.1% stake to 54.7%).
He expanded into non-sports-related cable deals as well. Last December, he spearheaded carriage deals for the forthcoming National Geographic Channel with AT & T Broadband and Internet Services, the nation's largest cable company, and DirecTV, the biggest DBS service.
On April 20, FOX created FOX Cable Networks and named Shell, 34, president. He will maintain his oversight of News Corp.'s sports channels and adds to his portfolio FX, FOX Movie Channel, FOX Family Channel and the Health Network (now relaunching as WebMD TV), as well as National Geographic. FOX News, however, continues to report to the FOX Entertainment Group.
Now, Shell says, Walt Disney Co., where he once worked, is the only major player left with unconsolidated cable holdings.
Shell's sports connection began at Disney in 1991, when he became a senior analyst in the company's corporate strategy group. He undertook several special projects, including the launches of the Mighty Ducks hockey team in Anaheim, Calif., and Disney's Florida-based cruise line.
He landed at News Corp. three years later as vice president of business development for FOX Television. In November 1996, he moved over to Fox/Liberty Networks (which later became FSN), climbing the ladder from senior vice president for finance and development to CFO to president in about 2½ years.
"Speed has never been a problem at Fox," Shell says. He is referring to the company's ability to quickly grasp new opportunities, but he may as well have been referring to his promotion pace, too. In fact, he says, "I've taken to this culture here at FOX literally from the time I walked in the door."
He describes that culture as "incredibly aggressive, incredibly non-bureaucratic." Smart people are hired and given "a chance to succeed, which sounds simple but doesn't happen in a lot of places."
It's not exactly a forgiving environment, however, he admits. Mess up in a big way, and "you're probably gone."
Shell has no plans to mess up his agenda, which initially includes "continuing the momentum of the existing channels": FX, FSN, the FOX Movie Channel and the FOX Family Channel. Under Shell, FSN's losses have narrowed, but FOX Family is suffering a major ratings slide, FX's operations have been mixed, and FOX Movies never had strong distribution.
He also will oversee the relaunch of the Health Network as WebMD TV, which will utilize both cable and the Internet to serve medical patients.
Shell also plans to develop a "new emphasis and new focus on our digital cable strategy. We have some tremendous products, and I don't think we've gone about that in the most progressive fashion."
Further down the road, Shell wants to "develop a strategy at FOX for the next phase of programming development" across a variety of platforms.
In other words, figure out how FOX can use digital and the Internet most profitably. "Everybody's starting to think about [that] now," he says, but the strategy should take three to five years to develop.
Shell has always been business-oriented. Although he has "always been comfortable with numbers," majoring in math as an undergraduate at the University of California-Berkeley was a mistake, he laughs. Between college and graduate school, he worked as an analyst in the investment banking department of Salomon Bros, an experience that convinced him that "I didn't really want to be a banker."
Graduate school helped steer him toward corporate work. It's only in an organization that you can see "the results of your decisions," he says.
His second love, he says, is politics, and that's how he met his wife, Laura. She works as a planning deputy for a Los Angeles County Council member, and they hooked up at a fund-raiser, says Shell, confessing to being "the one Democrat here at News Corp. in a sea of Republicans."
But he's far from the only Dodger fan. Shell tries to attend as many games as he can. However, "the game is sometimes seriously spoiled" as he chews on the latest multimillion-dollar deal for a player. "Being in the sports business makes it difficult to be a fan."
Fox's cable holdings
|<p> <span class="small" id="d9e55-24-small">Channel</span> </p>||<p> <span class="small" id="d9e60-28-small">No. of subs</span> </p>||<p> <span class="small" id="d9e65-32-small">Partner, if any (Fox's %)</span> </p>|
*Comprises FSN Arizona; FSN Bay Area (70% with Cablevision's Rainbow Media Holdings Inc.); FSN Chicago (40% with Rainbow); FSN Cincinnati (40% with Rainbow); FSN Florida (40% with Rainbow); FSN Detroit; FSN Midwest; FSN New England (40% with Rainbow); FSN New York (40% with Rainbow); FSN Northwest; FSN Ohio (40% with Rainbow); FSN Pittsburgh; FSN Rocky Mountain; FSN South (majority owner; partner Scripps-Howard); FSN Southwest; FSN Utah (100%); FSN West and FSN West 2; Home Team Sports (35% with CBS); MSG Network (40% with Rainbow); Sunshine Network (majority owner; partners AT & T, Comcast, Cox)
Sources: FOX; media reports