After giving a speech at Yale a few years back, 20th Century Fox Television Co-President Gary Newman expected the students at his alma mater to inquire about the quickest path to a high-powered career in Hollywood. Instead, he recalls, “15 hands immediately went up when I got done speaking, and all the questions were about Family Guy.”
The animated show about a dysfunctional Rhode Island family wasn’t even on network TV at the time. But the students’ interest proved to Newman what a cultural phenomenon Family Guy had become after two failed stints on Fox, and it convinced him that it deserved another shot.
After a campaign that involved licensing two months of free reruns on Cartoon Network’s Adult Swim block and producing 48 episodes for Cartoon and the DVD market, Family Guy returned to Fox in 2005 and sold into syndication the next year.
The show’s reversal of fortune was one of several successes Newman has enjoyed since he and Dana Walden were named co-presidents of 20th Century Fox Television in 1999. With his dealmaking prowess, Newman has helped the studio become a powerhouse supplier of hits like 24, Boston Legal and My Name Is Earl.
A proud accomplishment
But, for Newman, the return of Family Guy was a personal victory, one he calls his “proudest accomplishment.”
“It was a show that we all had tremendous passion for at the studio,” he says. “Its [cancellation] broke everyone’s heart, especially since it had been moved around the schedule so much and was not well taken care of.”
Newman’s point of pride has also paid dividends for 20th. Alongside the studio’s other animated hits, including The Simpsons and King of the Hill, the continued success of Family Guy has helped sustain 20th during a prolonged TV-comedy draught.
Indeed, spending his days dealing with distribution strategy and creative challenges on the studio’s shows has inspired far more passion in Newman than civil law—the career he was pursuing when he met his wife, Jeanne, who went on to become a powerful Hollywood attorney.
“When we talked about work, she was having a lot more fun than me,” he recalls.
After following her entertainment path with jobs at Columbia Pictures Television and NBC, Newman landed at 20th and began rising through the business-affairs ranks.
An “easy and natural rhythm”
When the studio tapped him and his friend Walden to be co-presidents, both were initially apprehensive. But Newman says his business background quickly gelled with Walden’s more creative perspective, and the two found an “easy and natural rhythm.”
At 20th, Newman established a reputation as a prolific dealmaker, forging pacts with such writers and producers as David E. Kelley (Boston Legal), Shawn Ryan (The Unit), Joel Surnow (24), Paul Scheuring (Prison Break), Seth McFarlane (Family Guy) and Victor Fresco (My Name Is Earl). The studio also maintains a strong relationship with supplier Imagine Television, which co-produces 24.
The pacts have resulted in a string of solid performers, including 24, Prison Break and Bones on Fox; Shark, The Unit and How I Met Your Mother on CBS; Earl on NBC; and Boston Legal on ABC.
On 20th’s series slate for next season is Action News, with Frasier’s Kelsey Grammer and Everybody Loves Raymond’s Patricia Heaton. After a heated multi-network bidding war that produced a hefty reported license fee of $1.3 million-$1.4 million per episode, Fox snagged the new comedy.
In addition to exploring ancillary businesses through Fox Licensing and Merchandising, Newman has been aggressive in exploiting the studio’s valuable properties on emerging platforms.
As a result, 20th has been a pioneer in the world of emerging media. It was the first to venture into “mobisodes,” installments produced for mobile devices, with shows including Prison Break and 24.
Last week, the studio brokered its first digital deal with a third-party network, enabling NBC’s My Name Is Earl to be distributed on several platforms, including iTunes, MySpace and NBC.com.
Peter Chernin, CEO of News Corp., 20th’s parent, calls Newman “an innovator when it comes to new business opportunities,” adding that he “has been instrumental in taking the studio beyond its mandate as a production entity.”
In 2004, Walden and Newman created fox21, a production arm dedicated to low-cost cable- and broadcast-network production. Newman describes it as a “less bureaucratic” outfit that allows creators to pursue “passion projects,” such as Beauty and the Geek, from actor-turned-producer Ashton Kutcher.
Despite the demands of work, Newman strives to keep weeknights free for family dinners and helping his 13-year-old son with homework. Weekends are reserved for entertaining or heading to Santa Ynez, Calif., where he and his wife started a winery called Jorian Hill, an amalgamation of their three kids’ names: Jordan, Reed and Hillary.
As for his successful partnership with Walden, both liken it to a marriage. “We try to reach a consensus in our decisions,” Newman says. “Like any good marriage, the key to success is communication.”
Walden credits Newman’s “analytical” and “emotionally even” temperament with balancing out her “very emotional,” more instinctual approach. “I can’t imagine not having a partner in a job like this,” she says. “And I couldn’t ask for a better 'work husband.’”
Small wonder that one of the pilots on the 20th slate this fall is the Fox comedy Work Wife, about reporters who “navigate the challenges that their partnership at work brings to their relationships at home.”