Peter Chernin is widely regarded as charming, relatively easy to negotiate with and—by his own description—calm. Just don’t call the News Corp. president the “good cop.”
That is, however, a common description of Chernin by media-industry players who marvel at his contrast to Chairman/CEO Rupert Murdoch.
Chernin is often described as the “anti-Murdoch”—though not to his face. His famous Australian-born boss is a staunch conservative who uses his media outlets to advance political and corporate causes. On the other hand, Chernin is a Democrat who handed out anti-war literature during Vietnam and today donates liberally to Democratic candidates. The News Corp. chairman is often brusque and combative. Chernin is more of a conciliator.
That sort of good-cop/bad-cop combination is useful, particularly in political fights when News Corp. needs friends on both sides of the aisle. Chernin bristles a bit at the characterization, as if he is somehow not tough enough for the Fox machine: “I’m running big chunks of the company, and we have plenty of hard fights with people.”
Notable, recent fights include Fox Television Stations’ public political attack on Nielsen’s new ratings system and Fox Sports’ recurring skirmishes to squeeze higher license fees out of cable operators for Fox Sports networks.
Growing up in the New York City suburb of Harrison, N.Y., Chernin was an unlikely candidate for media mogul. His parents severely restricted his TV consumption. An English major at the University of California at Berkeley, he began his career in the publishing business, first as a publicist at St. Martin, then as an editor at Warner Books in New York.
One success he shepherded: Mary Ellen’s Best of Helpful Hints, a bestseller full of household advice. (Sample crisis: “I got a coffee spot on my white suit, but it’s too late to change.”)
His break into television came from David Gerber. The prolific producer of made-for-TV movies called “out of the blue” in 1978 in a hunt for book people to help develop telepictures and miniseries. Chernin recalls feeling completely unqualified for the job. “I didn’t know anything about the television business,” he says.
Actually, Gerber agrees. He says Chernin’s publishing background gave him an eye for stories and scripts. However, “he wasn’t into the television packaging, selling, structuring a deal. I was very tough on him. I had to get him out of that nice, comfortable literary mode.”
Gerber is surprised at Chernin’s career path: “I didn’t really think he’d grow up through a corporate structure.”
Chernin spent five years helping crank out such projects as the CBS miniseries George Washington, starring Barry Bostwick.
That led to an offer in 1983 from pay movie network Showtime, which—as it does today—badly lagged behind market leader Home Box Office. Part of Chernin’s mission was ramping up the network’s efforts in original programming, to try to distinguish Showtime from its rival and also to blunt the impact of the suddenly burgeoning rental of movies on home video.
Showtime was a great playground, free from the curse of Nielsens and the delicate sensibilities of advertisers. What Chernin learned—and then taught other executives—is how to do the kind of shows that no one else is doing. That resulted in gay-themed Brothers and the breakthrough comedy It’s Garry Shandling’s Show.
That led to the film side of the business. TV producer and syndicator Lorimar was getting into the theatrical-movie business and in 1987 named Chernin president of Lorimar Film Entertainment, reporting to Chairman Bernie Brillstein. Financial successes included Dangerous Liaisons, Running on Empty and Action Jackson.
TV beckoned again in 1989. Fox Broadcasting Chairman Barry Diller tapped Chernin as president of entertainment to help him expand the then-fledgling network. Fox was still a shaky fourth network, The channel was lean on programming, able to muster only two nights a week worth of shows, including hits like 21 Jump Street but also clunkers like The Reporters.
“What appealed to me was the fact that it was a new operation at someplace that was really trying to grow and, in some sense, build a history,” Chernin said at the time.
Chernin focused on young viewers, launching The Simpsons, In Living Color and Beverly Hills 90210. Although Fox’s ratings faltered in 1992, the network seemed to be finding its place. At the same time, Chernin’s political savvy and ability caught Murdoch’s attention.
That year, Murdoch moved Chernin to the ailing 20th Century Fox film studio, which he was credited with turning around. In 1996, Chernin became president/COO of News Corp., with responsibility for all North American operations.
For all his successes, Chernin may never really be the boss of News Corp. The company is controlled by Murdoch, and he has been intent on grooming one of his children to replace him.
For years, the most likely candidate was eldest son Lachlan. But he quit his job as deputy COO in a clash with his father and retreated to Australia.
That leaves son James as the only Murdoch scion still in the family business, working overseas as managing director of satellite-TV service BskyB. (Daughter Elisabeth quit the company, and Prudence has never worked at the company.)
Chernin has been courted by other media companies, most notably Disney, which in 2004 needed a replacement for outgoing CEO Michael Eisner. To keep him in place, Murdoch gave Chernin a new five-year contract that runs through 2009.
“I have happily been in this job for—actually, this month—10 years, and I’ve been with the company for 17 years,” Chernin says. “If I didn’t like my situation, I wouldn’t be here.”