Getting got out of Harvard Business School in 1991, Jeff Shell vowed not to go to work at some dry financial institution. Having spent two years on Wall Street, "I wanted to work for a real business," says Shell, now president and CEO of Fox Cable Networks Group. "I wanted to work for a business that made things. On top of that, I wanted to be in an exciting, growing business. I was not looking for a job in the steel industry."
Shell got what he wanted. He's launching cable networks and working with News Corp. executives to shape the future of TV, and he's anything but bored.
Since '91, he has helped Disney bring a hockey team to Southern California, launched News Corp.'s satellite service in Latin America, been instrumental in Fox's acquisition of the Los Angeles Dodgers, put together Fox's cable rival to ESPN, and now oversees News Corp.'s U.S. cable properties.
Moving home to California with his M.B.A., he landed in Walt Disney Co.'s corporate strategic planning department, where he helped Chairman Michael Eisner and other execs evaluate business opportunities.
In 1994, he was about to sign a new deal with Disney when a friend told him about a business-development position at Fox. "Almost as an afterthought, I went to talk to the people at Fox and ended up hitting it off with the people. I kind of fell in love with the culture, which is much different from Disney."
In his first year as vice president of business development for Fox Television, he helped launch Sky Latin America, parent company News Corp.'s satellite partnership with Brazil's Organizacoes Globo and Mexico's Grupo Televisa. A year later, he was named senior VP of Fox/Liberty Networks, which comprised the regional sports channels that would soon coalesce into Fox Sports Net.
"I thought it was the best idea I had ever heard," says Shell about bringing together regional cable sports networks under one banner. "I kind of raised my hand and said I want to go into this business. Fortunately, they said, 'OK, we'll put you in as head of finance.'"
Acquiring local cable rights to 38 professional basketball, baseball and hockey teams in less than three years, Shell helped build Fox Sports Net, which now encompasses 21 regional sports networks and 73 million subscribers.
Shell's cable and financial background was exactly what News Corp. executives were seeking in 1999 when they created a home for the company's 20 domestic cable and satellite networks. Shell was named president and CEO of Fox Cable Networks Group in 2000, overseeing FX, Fox Sports Net, Fox Family Channel (in partnership with Saban), Fox Movie Channel, Fox Sports World, The Health Network, new National Geographic Channel and, as of last week, Speedvision. Fox News Channel is the lone U.S. News Corp. cable property not under Shell's command.
"We put this division together for a number of reasons," says Shell. "First, we needed to be able to represent the entire group because the MSOs are getting bigger and bigger and don't want to do just single-network deals. Second, we were able to consolidate some of the key costs. We are incredibly centralized and very consolidated, not unlike Viacom or Turner, and it lets us have the cost efficiencies to effectively compete with the big guys."
Shell says Fox executives are very bullish about National Geographic Channel, are working to retool Fox Sports Net's programming, and are aiming to make FX one of the top entertainment outlets on cable. He also says the division will likely launch more cable channels in the future and is looking to digital and broadband for new revenue streams.
"Coming out of business school 10 years ago," Shell says, "I couldn't have hoped for a more complicated, dynamic, growing business than this one has become."