Jack Abernethy: The Local Leader Of Fox 2.0
After his undergrad days at Georgetown, Jack Abernethy went to New York University in 1978 for further studies in finance with the expectation that he would end up on Wall Street.
But after securing his master’s degree early, he answered a job posting by the NBC O&Os and found a different career. “I was there about two months and I said: ‘This is the business for me.’ I loved it just because it was so relevant. Even though I was in finance, there were issues about journalism, entertainment, engineering and politics.
“I found that whenever I went out with a group of friends, everyone wanted to talk to me about what I did. No one wanted to talk to anybody else.”
Now 62, Abernethy is still talking about broadcasting, but with far more authority than he did four decades ago. He is CEO of Fox Television Stations, by some measures the largest TV group in the country with 28 stations in 17 markets and a growing footprint that currently covers two-fifths of U.S. TV homes.
He is a key man in the plan to reinvent broadcasting by sharply focusing on what the medium does best — delivering live programming to mass audiences. Rupert Murdoch and his sons came up with the plan after agreeing to sell most of the assets of 21st Century Fox to Disney. When that deal closes next year, New Fox will comprise just the Fox network and stations along with Fox News Channel and some other lesser cable assets.
Although Abernethy was on the finance side of the business, he shunned opportunities to join General Electric, then the owner of NBC, and stuck with the stations through the 1980s, when they were being run by Bob Walsh and later Al Jerome.
Jerome, now working as a mediator in Los Angeles, says he remembers Abernethy well as being a “very solid, strong performer” who learned every aspect of station management even though he was primarily assigned to financial and administrative duties.
Abernethy was on track to become an NBC station GM, Jerome says. “When Jack goes to visit one of his stations, I would be very surprised if he doesn’t know enough to talk turkey with his operations guy, his sales guy and his programming guy. He knows stations from the inside.”
To the surprise of some, Abernethy made a lateral move to CNBC in 1990 to help rescue the fledgling cable network. “The understanding was to either help figure out what to do with it or shut it down,” he says.
He and others did figure out what to do and that was to buy rival Financial News Network out of bankruptcy and merge the two services. CNBC stabilized, grew and soon became a cable fixture.
In a 2006 profile of Abernethy in Broadcasting & Cable, Roger Ailes, who had been brought in to run CNBC in 1993, recalled the first time he met Abernethy: “He was in shorts and gym socks, heading out the door at 11 a.m. to play basketball,” said Ailes, who died in 2017. “I’d been hired to take over a network [CNBC] that was a bit out of control. When he was introduced to me at that moment as the CFO, I was pretty concerned.”
Later that afternoon, Ailes questioned him on the details of the business. Abernethy’s “extraordinary grasp” of financial and personnel details and his eye for overlooked business opportunities convinced Ailes. “I don’t know how his jump shot is,” Ailes said, “but his business skills are great.”
Abernethy’s big career move came in 1996 when he and dozens of others followed Ailes to Fox to launch Fox News Channel and go head to head with CNN and MSNBC.
In the late 1990s, most media executives were enthralled by the internet and trying to figure out how to exploit it. But Abernethy chose another far less exciting medium to demonstrate his business development side.
“Everybody thought radio was old, but I could see that one thing about radio that is different is that it’s really exclusive. When you’re listening in the car on your radio, you’re not competing with TV or the web or anything else. You’re totally immersed.”
FNC’s radio proved to be “a very nice match for the Fox News viewer,” he said. And it’s proved to be a good business, continuing to thrive not only on terrestrial radio, but also on the satellite and the internet.
In 2004, after a successful run at FNC, Abernethy seized an opportunity to return to the station business, not as a GM of a single station, but as CEO of Fox Television Stations.
His first big challenges in that post came in 2006 when he had to find primetime programing for the Fox duopoly stations that lost their UPN affiliations. UPN and The WB had settled their decade-long rivalry by agreeing to merge into The CW.
Abernethy quickly backed a bold solution — a new network, My Network Television, which would air telenovelas like those on Spanish-language TV. The nightly soaps were innovative and a marvel of low-cost TV production, but they were a flop with audiences. MNT quickly switched to more conventional fare and lives on today as a programming service distributing off-network shows to its lineup of Fox and non-Fox stations.
In August 2016, Abernethy took on a second job at Fox. As co-presidents of Fox News Channel, he and Bill Shine were tasked with bringing some order to the cable network, which has been rocked by the sexual harassment scandals that brought down Ailes and talk show host Bill O’Reilly.
Shine exited the following May for mishandling of sexual harassment complaints and settlements. Abernethy stayed with it until last May when Fox finally got around to appointing a new head for the network, Suzanne Scott.
Relieved of that duty, Abernethy is now focusing on holding up the local end of New Fox’s live news-and-sports strategy. And he will do it from Los Angeles, near his boss Lachlan Murdoch, the current executive chairman of 21st Century Fox and the prospective CEO of New Fox.
The Abernethy Team
- Sharri Berg — COO, News and Operations
- Jim Burke — President of Sales
- Joseph Dorrego — EVP, Chief Financial Officer
- Erica Keane — SVP, Corporate Communications
- Jean Fuentes — SVP, Human Resources
- Joe DiScipio — SVP, Corporate Legal and FCC
- David Keneipp — SVP, Legal Affairs
- Frank Cicha — SVP, Programming
- Steve Chung — SVP, Chief Digital Officer
- Kevin Casey — VP, Labor Relations
- Stephen Brown — EVP, Development
This is part 2 of a three-part special report. Yesterday focused on the station group’s strategy going forward as a crucial component of New Fox. Part 3 on Wednesday will highlight the men and women who lead the 28 stations that make up Fox Television Stations. You can read the other parts here.