When Gary Newman, chairman and CEO of 20th Century Fox Television, first took over the studio in 1999 along with fellow chairman-CEO Dana Walden, it was a second- or third-tier outfit with only a handful of series on the air. It has since grown into a powerhouse that boasts such hits as Modern Family, The Simpsons and Homeland. At 14 years, his and Walden’s tenure is longer than any other major studio head, a milestone you don’t achieve with just successful series, but also by having a reputation for getting along with others.
Though Newman, a former attorney, was initially the business affairs pro to Walden’s creative maven, he has grown to be equally as comfortable in a pitch meeting as in deal-making, known as a great supporter of creative people and trusting of their vision.
“He doesn’t want to get involved in things where he feels he shouldn’t get involved,” says Steve Levitan, cocreator of Modern Family, who has had a deal with the studio since the late 1990s. “He’s there to be the big-picture to guide you, to help on the business front, to give you his instincts on something but to also say, ‘I trust your vision, that’s why we hired you.’”
Newman grew up in Los Angeles and graduated from Yale University before earning a J.D. from the University of Southern California and working in legal and business affairs at Columbia Pictures Television and NBC during the Brandon Tartikoff years. A varsity basketball player in college, he credits team sports for teaching him skills that helped advance his career, like “having faith in your teammates” and “not panicking when things aren’t going well.”
“The wonderful thing about Gary, at least when he was working with us, he didn’t make every deal a crisis, which is almost an art form in and of itself,” says John Agoglia, the former president of NBC Enterprises. “I never thought anyone as nice as he is could be as effective as he has become in the television industry.”
Newman joined 20th Century Fox Television in 1990 and was happy in his low-profile business affairs job before Peter Chernin, the former president and COO of News Corp., took notice of him at a company retreat and singled him out for more responsibility.
“What I saw in Gary was a business affairs executive who, on one hand, I had confidence could protect the company’s interests and essentially be cheap, but on the other hand, was able to think about broad strategic business plans,” Chernin says.
Newman became 20th TV’s top-ranking business officer before being tapped in 1999 to oversee the prolific studio with Walden. They made a huge bet that investing another $50-$100 million in talent could pay off in billions. The studio went from producing five shows to the 44 it has on the air now, including New Girl and the Emmy-winning Modern Family, Homeland, Glee and American Horror Story.
“I remember a time in the business when 20th was really an also-ran in the studio business,” says Kevin Reilly, chairman of entertainment at Fox Broadcasting Co. “They’ve helped really build it into this global powerhouse that it is, that supplies not only broadcast, but cable and all other platforms. Gary’s a very big architect of that.”
One of Newman’s major accomplishments was bringing Family Guy back from cancellation against a fair amount of resistance within the company. After Fox axed the show in 2001, Newman was speaking at Yale, where almost every student asked him why the Seth MacFarlane toon was cancelled.
“It just occurred to me that there was an appetite for this show, and that it had come to an end too soon, and despite resistance, I felt a loyalty to Seth,” Newman says.
Newman was able to make a deal with Cartoon Network, which was showing repeats of the series, for new episodes, though he left a window for a broadcast network to step up, which eventually Fox did. The show recently entered its 12th season and anchors Fox’s Sunday animation lineup, which remains a top ratings draw for young men.
“That takes so much thought,” Walden says. “Protecting your options for the future…not knowing that was even a remote possibility at the point he did it. It just takes a big brain, and that’s what he’s got.”
MacFarlane, who has gone on to produce American Dad, The Cleveland Show and this season’s live-action Dads, credits Newman as a major reason he has stayed with the studio despite other lucrative offers. “One of the main reasons I’ve had no desire to go anywhere else is because Gary’s such a great guy to work with,” MacFarlane says. “Gary has never lost sight of who he is as a person. I think that’s very hard to hold onto when you reach that level.”
Helping keep Newman grounded is his wife, Jeanne, and their three children, who range in age from 19 to 27. He and his wife started a vineyard in Santa Anita, Calif., where they have a house and spend time with a group of friends completely removed from the entertainment business. He credits his longevity and track record at the studio to the authority and responsibility that he’s been entrusted with and his stable partnership with Walden.
“The real benefit of stability at these companies is, it’s actually allowed them to be more innovative than anybody else in the business,” Chernin says, pointing to 20th pioneering the DVD aftermarket with The Simpsons and 24; building a quality animation business; starting a cable arm with Fox21 and Fox Television Studios; and buying international formats like Homeland. “You look at the key innovations that are driving the television business, I think they were in the forefront of most of them.”