DILLER, BARRY

U.S. Media Executive

Barry Diller is an innovative television executive best known for organizing a fourth network at FOX Broadcasting to challenge the domination of American prime time television by ABC, CBS, and NBC. Starting out in the mail room of the William Morris Agency, Diller joined ABC's programming department in 1966 and was placed charge of negotiating broadcast rights to feature films from the major studios. Promoted to vice president in charge of feature films and program development in 1969, Diller inaugurated ABC's Movie of the Week, a regular series of 90-minute films made exclusively for television. Premiering on 23 September 1969, the program became the most popular movie series in television history and helped ABC achieve parity with NBC and CBS in the ratings.

Made-for-television films (MFTs) had appeared intermittently on prime time since 1965, when NBC contracted with MCA for more than thirty World Premiere movies to be delivered over a several year period. But it was Diller who devised the formula that enabled MFTs to outstrip the ratings power of theatrical movies. Abandoning conventional narratives such as westerns and crime melodramas, Diller ordered up social problem films that explored current issues such as homosexuality (That Certain Summer, 1972), the Vietnam War (The Ballad of Andy Crocker, 1969), and drugs (Go Ask Alice, 1973). Capable of being quickly produced at a cost of around $350,000 each, docudramas as they were called, probed current newspaper headlines and American popular culture for gripping topics targeted at young urban and adult audiences. By 1972, MFTs had become an established network programming practice.

In 1974 at age 32, Diller was named chairman of Paramount Pictures. He was hired by Charles Bluhdorn, head of Gulf & Western Industries, a sprawling conglomerate that had acquired Paramount in 1966. Ten years at the helm, Diller oversaw a studio that produced hit television series that included Laverne & Shirley (1976), Taxi (1978), and Cheers (1982) and a string of motion picture ranging from Saturday Night Fever (1977), Grease (1978) to Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981) and its sequel Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom (1984) to Terms of Endearment (1983) and Beverly Hills Cop (1984).

Diller quit his job in 1984 over a dispute with Gulf & Western's new head, Martin S. Davis, and went to work for Twentieth Century-FOX. After the studio was acquired by Australian newspaper mogul Rupert Murdoch in 1985, Diller embarked on a plan to launch a fourth television network to compete with the Big Three. The nucleus of the network consisted of Metromedia Television, a group of seven big-city television stations reaching 23% of the population, which Murdoch purchased from John Kluge in 1986 for $2 billion. Lining up an amalgam of local UHF and VHF stations, FOX Broadcasting started out cautiously in 1987 with only two nights of prime-time programming, but by 1990 it had expanded its schedule to five nights. Diller had succeeded against all odds by developing low cost "reality" programming such as Cops and America's Most Wanted and alternative fare such as In Living Color, Married...with Children, and The Simpsons, aimed at the youth audience, ages 18-34.

In a move that surprised the industry, Diller quit Twentieth Century-Fox in 1992 and purchased a $25 million stake in QVC teleshopping network. As chair of QVC, Diller launched a takeover bid for Paramount Communications (the new name of Gulf & Western after the conglomerate sold off its non-entertainment businesses) in 1993. The battle for Paramount was joined by Sumner Redstone's Viacom Inc., which submitted a winning bid of $9.6 billion in 1994. Foiled in his attempt to take over a major film studio, Diller resigned from QVC in 1995 and acquired Silver King Communications, a small group of UHF stations, in an attempt to create a hybrid cable TV network that would offer a full schedule of entertainment, sports, and news. To finance the venture, Diller had secured the backing of John Malone, president and CEO of Telecommunications Inc., the nation's largest cable operator. Although the outcome of the Silver King venture is unclear, Diller will likely remain a key player in the cable television industry for the indefinite future.

-Tino Balio


Barry Diller
Photo courtesy of Barry Diller

BARRY DILLER. Born in San Francisco, California, U.S.A., 2 February 1942. Assistant to vice president in charge of programming, ABC-TV, 1966; executive assistant to vice president in programming and director of feature films, ABC, 1968; vice president, feature films and program development, ABC, 1969; created TV movies of the week and miniseries as vice president, feature films, Circle Entertainment, division of ABC, 1971; vice president, prime-time TV, ABC, 1973; board chair and president, Paramount Pictures, 1974; president, Gulf & Western Entertainment and Communications Group (while retaining Paramount titles), 1983; resigned from Paramount and joined 20th Century Fox as board chair and chief executive officer, 1984; named chair and chief executive officer, Fox, Inc., 1985; named to board, News Corp. Limited, June 1987; resigned from 20th Century Fox, February 1992; chief executive officer, QVC Network, 1992-95. Board of Directors: News Corp. Ltd.; FCC Advisory Committee on Advanced TV Services; Museum TV and Radio; Academy of Arts and Sciences Foundation. Member: President's Export Council.

FURTHER READING

Auletta, Ken. "Barry Diller's Search for the Future: Annals of Communication." The New Yorker (New York), 22 February 1993.

__________. "Network for Sale?" The New Yorker (New York), 25 July 1994.

"Barry Diller and FOX: Taking the High-risk Option" (interview). Broadcasting (Washington, D.C.), 1 January 1990.

Bart, Peter. "Dealing with Diller." Variety (Los Angeles, California), 2 March 1992.

Block, Alex Ben. Outfoxed: Marvin Davis, Barry Diller, Rupert Murdoch, Joan Rivers and the Inside Story of America's Fourth Television Network. New York: St. Martin's, 1990.

Corliss, Richard. "'The Barry and Larry Show': Barry Diller of QVC Corp. and Lawrence Tisch of CBS Plan Merger." Time (New York), 11 July 1994.

Freeman, Mike. "QVC's Diller: Redefining TV" (interview). Broadcasting (Washington, D.C.), 25 January 1993.

Goodell, Jeff. "Barry Diller" (interview). Rolling Stone (New York), 25 August 1994.

McClellan, Steve. "Diller Ponders Newfound Independents: Silver King Buy Puts Him Back in the Game." Broadcasting & Cable (Washington, D.C.), 4 September 1995.

Moshavi, Sharon D. "Diller's Next Moves: Cable Network, Putting Theatricals on PPV First." Broadcasting (Washington, D.C.), 25 November 1991.

Solomon, Jolie, and Charles Fleming. "Regarding Barry." Newsweek (New York), 25 July 1994.

"Vanity, Insanity and Fear (Time-Warner/Ted Turner and Barry Diller Attempt to Build Media Giants in Opposite Ways)." The Economist (London), 2 September 1995.

 

See also FOX Broadcasting Company/ Movies on Television; Murdoch, Rupert