Stephen Chao, WonderHowTo.com web entrepreneur, former Fox TV president! VIDEO INTERVIEW

If you think Fox TV is edgy and kooky now, you should’ve seen it back in the early ‘90s when Stephen Chao was a programmer and eventually its President.

He commissioned “COPS,” created “America’s Most Wanted,” and earned a reputation for creating commercial success by pushing boundaries and questioning the conventional wisdom. Chao rose to president of Fox Television and later held the same position at USA Cable where he launched “Monk.”

He dropped from sight for a few years. I hear he did a lot of surfing, and he’s now back in a new medium promoting a website, wonderhowto.com. If you want to see videos such as “Make Your Desk a More Creative Space” or “Increase Boob Size on Pictures with Photoshop” — yes, I did like that one myself — check out wonderhowto.com.

BOB ANDELMAN/Mr. MEDIA: I’m sure this is what everybody who runs into you asks this question. But, okay, why on earth did you get a man to remove all his clothes at a meeting with Rupert Murdoch and Dick Cheney?

STEPHEN CHAO: Do I really have to go into that, Bob?

ANDELMAN: So much time has passed, Stephen. It must be easier to talk about.

CHAO: Let’s see. Let’s count how much time. 1992, 2002, 2008 – that would be 16 years.

ANDELMAN: Yes. And I noticed that The New York Times, when they profiled you a few weeks ago, referred to it, but they didn’t explain it, and that’s the thing I’ve always wondered about. It’s a bit of notoriety that will live with you forever. And here we are so I was kind of curious to ask.

CHAO: Okay. Actually, to tell you the truth, Bob, this is the first time I’ve actually ever spoken to it with any publication or medium or anything, but since you’re polite, I’ll answer the question.

The answer is I was giving a speech on standards and practices, and it was a speech that was meant to illustrate the trade-offs between the different standards and practices we have in America as it relates to violence on the one hand and nudity on the other. Both of those are big hot points in the media. They always have been, and they still are today. And I was citing an example of Dutch television, which had liberated itself from certain constraints. They said “Nakedness really isn’t that big of an issue, but violence, that’s a really bad issue. That’s anti-social.” So all of a sudden — and this was 1965 that Dutch television did this — they said, “We’ll allow nakedness starting now, and we’re going to ban violence starting now.” And, of course, that’s a pretty radical move for any government or television operation to do because it’s a complete switch, and it’s a switch very much like the way it would be a switch today in America, which is that we happen to accept violence on television. We do not happen to accept nudity. And so the question was kind of just a theoretical. Which is better, which is worse for society? Nakedness on the one hand versus violence and killing on the other. So I had a prop, as it turned out, to demonstrate a particular point, and it didn’t go over particularly well. And that’s the end of that story, Bob.

ANDELMAN: Did anyone besides you know what you were going to do, and did anyone try to talk you out of it?

CHAO: I guess the answer to that would be no. No one knew. That’s correct. No one knew.

ANDELMAN: I’m really glad I asked you about it. It was the kind of thing that interested me. I could see myself, a younger version of me, doing something like that to make the same type of point.

CHAO: Exactly. Yeah.

ANDELMAN: And then looking back now and saying, “I don’t know what I was thinking, but it seemed like the smart thing to do then.”

CHAO: To tell you the truth — and this is an indication of the difference between you and me — I don’t think I’ve gotten any wiser since then, so I’m pretty much the same person. I would probably do it just as innocently today and go, “What? What’s wrong?” And that would be that.

It was an interesting point. It was backed up by facts and situation and experience that happened in 1967 on Dutch television. It was kind of a landmark situation in Holland, and it was just meant to be a provocative point. I probably, in retrospect, nothing would’ve happened to me if I didn’t have that naked male, but such is life.

ANDELMAN: Do you think it would’ve gone over differently if it had been a naked woman?

CHAO: Yes. That, in fact, was very much a very good point. I don’t know if there’s anything left that can happen. You either get fired, or you don’t get fired. I chose a man for purposeful reasons as opposed to a woman because I think we accept a naked woman. We really don’t accept a naked man. So I don’t know. It was a choice on purpose. It was meant to be provocative. I hadn’t really given it… I just haven’t given it much thought since the incident since you asked me now 16 years later. I know that I chose a man and not a woman in that situation. That’s the only way I can answer that question.

ANDELMAN: I’m thinking about it. Murdoch’s newspapers, of course, have run topless pictures of women for years so I would think that might’ve gone under the radar, but I guess the man…

CHAO: Well, to be fair to Rupert…

ANDELMAN: But you don’t have to be.

CHAO: No, I don’t have to be, but I think he’s pretty good at what he does, and he’s pretty consistent, and I don’t consider him, frankly, hypocritical. If you’re referring to naked pictures, what happens in England, for example, on page 3 of The Sun, that’s a different culture, and in true standards and practices, not that a speech in Aspen is governed by standards and practices necessarily or the rules of English media or the rules of American media, but to be fair, yes, you do it in English media. That’s something you do. In truth, would you put a naked person on in American media? And the answer to that is no, you wouldn’t do that in a newspaper, and you wouldn’t do that on a TV show. You might, if you were Stephen Chao, make a provocative point in a conference and behind closed doors, but it is a different culture, and so you can’t import that culture and that standards and practices to America and therefore, label him hypocritical or not cause it’s just apples and oranges all the way around.

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ANDELMAN: Stephen, take me back to your days as a programmer and as a president at Fox, the early days of Fox. What kind of things were on the air then?

CHAO: That was 16 years ago so I’m taxing myself right now. I think there were things like “Women in Prison” and “Boys Will Be Boys” and — what was that woman talk show? Joan Rivers. And then there was a little bit of bubble at 7:00 on Sunday in the form of “Jump Street,” which wasn’t really working, but it was doing okay. In truth, Sunday night and Saturday night weren’t doing okay at the time. And then there was a show that wasn’t moving very much, that wasn’t getting any appreciation, named “Married With Children,” and this was, of course, all before “The Simpsons” was there. So that’s what was on the schedule then.

ANDELMAN: You get credit for commissioning “COPS” and creating “America’s Most Wanted.” What else did you put on the schedule at that time?

CHAO: I was really interested in exploring what I thought was a new way to turn up the volume on dating so I launched a show called “Studs,” which actually got me in some trouble also. But it was, commercially, quite successful, and it was making an awful lot of money. It had a very quick start. I made a lot of specials, and I made a lot of shows, or my division did, at Fox. So we were making five hours a week for Fox Broadcasting Company. But the other show that stands out, mostly in terms of just kind of in retrospect, it was “Studs.” I just thought that, again, you have to go back to 1991 to have the context, but the most successful show at the time in the dating area was “Love Connection,” and it was really good. There was just plenty of room to make it more fun and carry on in the kind of double-entendre, racy tradition that “The Newlywed Game” had many years before that. I thought we could just do that same kind of thing in a contemporary way where the male was the victim of the joke, so to speak, between 2 or 3 women. And it wouldn’t be so much conceptual fun to step on the ego of women. It would be an awful lot of fun to step on the ego of men, and that was really the idea behind “Studs.” And it took off and worked and was a lot of fun.

After that, I shifted and ran Fox Television and Fox News, so I was out of the production business at a certain point.

ANDELMAN: Those early days of the Fox TV network, it was kind of a wild, wild West. There was some very unusual fare that got on the air, and I say it with respect because I enjoyed it. My wife and I, I don’t know if she wants me to drag her into this, but my wife and I watched those shows because it was so different. It was such a different time. I kind of wondered what was the programming philosophy at that time? What were you looking to do?

CHAO: Behind the scenes, as is the case I would suspect in most good start-ups, it was kind of desperate in many ways, and so it was a combination of desperately looking for any signs of life and Nielsen ratings and reaction, versus the other side, which is what you want it to be, which is more of this open field of creative experimentation. It’s a combination of really, really trying hard and the combination of really being terrified when things aren’t working. So that’s a nice combination. It’s a lovely place to be, between happiness and despair. A lot of things were experimented on, and out of that, again, just to go back, which is what you’re asking, to go back in history, “COPS” came out of nowhere. “America’s Most Wanted” came out of nowhere. They had no antecedent, so to speak.

At the time, everybody said, “Wow, ‘Hill Street Blues.’ It’s so realistic.” And, today, that’s frankly a laughable statement that people would say, “I really look to ‘Hill Street Blues’ to understand the psyche of cops and the psyche of victims and perpetrators and stuff like that,” because, of course, once you get to “COPS,” it’s like, “What was that cartoon they called ‘Hill Street Blues’? What did that have to do with life?” So it was very interesting because it came out of the blue, it had no antecedent, and it just smashed onto the scene as a completely original television idea. And I don’t mean to give “COPS” in the form of Frederick Wiseman, who did documentaries about cops which, by the way, we luckily were too stupid and ignorant to have known about, but they were similar cinema-verite kind of efforts many years before. It’s a lovely combination of experimentation, of ignorance, of having a budget to spend, and really being open-minded to what might or might not engage the national audience.

I think all those factors made it very interesting, and I think that those are factors one really tries to find in life because it’s not too much fun if you get too successful, and it’s not too much fun if you hit too much failure. So I guess it had just the right combination of things. And, by the way, you have to pick your right moment in life. Namely, you can’t say, “I’m going to launch a fifth network,” which 2 people did, and expect there to be enough of a marketplace for that. Now, it’s easy to say in hindsight, but at the time, prospectively, when either CW or Time Warner were being launched, you go, “It’s getting kind of thin. Do you really want to divide the pie up between 6 networks plus syndication?” And the answer is, “Wow, that’s kind of slicing it kind of thin.”

At the time when Fox was started, and, again, it’s a combination of creative programming strategy and smart business strategy. You have to say, “It’s been dominated by the big three. There is this group of stations called the Metromedia stations that could be the core of a new network. The big three incumbents are really kind of traditional. Their timing and their scheduling is kind of traditional. They don’t have a 10 o’clock news. There’s vulnerability. We are only required to do fewer hours. There’s all kinds of opportunity in that situation in terms of advertising, in terms of market, in terms of station groups, in terms of creative ideas. So you look at that, and you look at the larger market, which is basically what Rupert did before he bought the Metromedia stations, and he said, “You know what? I think there’s room here for a fourth network.” So you have to make the big, overall, broad-stroke judgment of it, and then you have to dive in with every piece of smarts you’ve got in every category of advertising, program development, distribution, promotion, everything. But the first stroke is, is the market there? And that stroke was chosen and decided by Rupert very bravely when he decided to buy the Metromedia stations. That was the real beginning of the Fox network.

ANDELMAN: How much pressure was there on the programming side by the people controlling the money at Fox, whether that be Rupert or people working for him? Was there a lot of pressure to perform, or was there a window to experiment and see what might work for a few seasons?

CHAO: I would say, to Barry Diller’s credit, I think there was a lot of pressure on him, but I think what he did is truly the sign of a great manager, which is he kept none of that pressure or transferred none of that pressure to anybody in the program department. And he really said look, you need a carte blanche to be creative and to really think of something interesting. And he didn’t say, “I need money, I need ratings, I need advertisers.” He compartmentalized that and just said, “Do something good.” So the answer is no, there wasn’t pressure. I’m sure there was in some certain areas where there appropriately should’ve been, but in shaping and fostering a creative enterprise, you just have to know when to draw the line.

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ANDELMAN: Did you continue to have any relationship with Barry Diller over the years once you were out of Fox?

CHAO: Yes, I was hired twice subsequently – once to help Q2 and QVC and subsequently to run USA. So three different times I’ve worked for him in my life.

ANDELMAN: Wow. I didn’t know that.

CHAO: Yeah.

ANDELMAN: I know that you probably want to talk about your website.

CHAO: I do indeed. You’re a mind reader, Bob.

ANDELMAN: I know that — but we have some time, and there’s a couple things to touch on, and we’ll come to that. I’m also very interested in what have you been doing since you left USA? I didn’t know about your involvement with QVC, but for the most part, people who watch media haven’t really seen much of you in the last 6 or 7 years. How have you been spending your time?

CHAO: Let’s see. I’ve been a private investor so I’ve bought and sold some companies, not necessarily in the media business. One that I’m particularly fond of that my friend ran was called Helios Nutrition. It was a kefir company so it was a natural foods kind of thing that was in all of the big good stores like Whole Foods and Wild Oats, and it was really successful as an alternative to yogurt. That’s one thing that I did. I just choose ideas and situations that I find engaging. I can’t say that I have to be in the media business. That’s not a requisite when I make choices, although I happen to like the media. I think it’s lots of fun, but it’s not a prerequisite.

ANDELMAN: But was I off-track when I suggested you’ve been doing a little surfing?

CHAO: Well, I’ve gotten pretty decent at surfing. It happens to coincide with my kids. I have a couple of kids. They’re 16 and 13 so the occasion to surf is kind of a magical thing because when you’re a 16-year-old boy, how much time do you really choose to be with your dad? And if dad’s a decent surfer, takes you to kind of really decent spots, and drives you there, dad’s pretty good. So it was really fun to be able to surf and get pretty good at it. I’m pretty good would be an exaggeration. I don’t want to say that. I’ve gotten decent at it.

ANDELMAN: So you’re not “John from Cincinnati” decent at it?

CHAO: I’m okay, actually. I really love it. It’s really a remarkable sport for me. I used to like skiing or snowboarding, but then the idea that you can go into the ocean without any equipment or artifice and just have a surfboard, I just can’t think of any sport like it. So I happen to really, really love the sport.

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About Mr. Media® Interviews-Bob Andelman

Bob Andelman is the host and producer of Mr. Media® Interviews. He is also the author or co-author of 15 books, including The Wawa Way with Howard Stoeckel, Building Atlanta with Herman J. Russell, Fans Not Customers with Vernon W. Hill, founder of Commerce Bank and Metro Bank UK, Mind Over Business with Ken Baum, The Consulate with Thomas R. Stutler, The Profiler with Pat Brown, Built From Scratch with the founders of The Home Depot, The Profit Zone with Adrian Slywotzky, Mean Business with Albert J. Dunlap, and Will Eisner: A Spirited Life. Click here to see Bob Andelman's Amazon Central author page. He is a member in good standing of the American Society of Journalists and Authors (member page).