A year ago, there were all sorts of questions about the health of Twentieth Television President Rick Jacobson.
Jacobson, who had been running Fox's syndication division for the previous four years, was battling colon cancer and had been in and out of his Los Angeles office for a good part of 1999. Jacobson didn't tell many people how serious his battle was, not even some of his closest friends or colleagues. And despite having only months to live, Jacobson somehow found his way to New Orleans for the annual NATPE Conference and continued pushing the off-network sales of 20th Century Fox-produced comedy Dharma & Greg
and a handful of other Fox offerings.
Shortly after NATPE, on March 5, Jacobson died in a California hospital at the age of 48. Executives at Twentieth Television, which had long been the syndication sales home for all of the 20th Century Fox TV offerings including M*A*S*H, NYPD Blue
and The Simpsons, were overcome by grief and the disarray that follows a sudden loss of leadership.
"It was hard, real hard," says Mitch Stern, the chairman and CEO of Fox's O & O stations, who also oversees Twentieth TV. "Rick and I had been friends for a long time and I saw almost everything Twentieth did through his eyes. There was a sense of real emotion when this went down and I promised Rick that I would make sure that everything was OK."
Stern, whose Fox station group constitutes the largest network-owned station group in the country, found himself suddenly leading the launch of first-run series Power of Attorney
and making long-term plans for Fox on the syndication side. All the while, Stern was in the midst of executing Fox's acquisition of the Chris-Craft stations which, if approved by the FCC, would dramatically change the way Twentieth operates going forward.
"I think the group really rallied," Stern says of Twentieth Television's executive ranks. "A lot of things have gone right, and many of them started with Rick and were carried out tremendously after his passing. A lot of people deserve a tremendous amount of credit. It's not easy to be your own boss a lot of the time. They were on their own a lot."
And late last year, nearly eight months after the death of Jacobson, Stern hired former King World and CBS/Eyemark marketing executive Bob Cook to be the new president of Twentieth. Cook, who had just spearheaded King World's successful off-network sales of Everybody Loves Raymond, inherited a division that was preparing for NATPE and making late decisions on off-network sales launches.
"I think most of the people here knew that Rick and I were friends and that was special to me," says Cook. "To come in and follow in his footprints, I mean there have been a lot of pretty successful guys that have come in and manned this office: Michael Lambert, Greg Meidel and Rick. So I was just proud to carry on that tradition."
Paul Franklin, Twentieth's top sales executive, says Cook's hiring gives the studio a much-needed boost going into NATPE this year.
"Rick is missed greatly, he and his personality and his abilities and all of his intangibles," says Franklin. "It was a long period of time between Rick's passing and Bob's hiring. We're thrilled to have Bob on the team, and we think he brings a whole different perspective to the company."
Until the last two years, Twentieth Television was known more for its success in off-network sales than first-run syndication. Everything from M*A*S*H
to The X-Files
had been brought to local stations and cable outlets through Twentieth's doors. And this fall, Twentieth is bringing Buffy, The Vampire Slayer; The Practice; World's Wildest Police Videos
and Two Guys and a Girl
into off-network syndication. In fall 2002, the studio is expected to offer Dharma & Greg, The Hughleys, Futurama
and possibly Malcolm in the Middle.
"I just hope the hits keep coming," says Cook, of co-owned Twentieth Century Fox's prime time success. "We control what would be considered the dramatic, the reality and the comedy fields. And then on the major motion picture side, we sell a number of feature packages. It's quite a lineup."
On the first-run side, recent talk shows fronted by Magic Johnson, Terry Bradshaw and other celebrities have failed to make it past a couple of months, let alone the first season. But the strong rollout of Divorce Court
last season and the early success of Power of Attorney
this year, has helped change the momentum. Cook admits he is looking to "ramp" up first-run development but says he will do it cautiously. "We are going to try to be very smart about what we bring to the market."