Special Report: All Business

NEW YORK Just one month after being hired by then Fox Broadcasting president Jamie Kellner as head of the television network’s advertising sales in the spring of 1989, Jon Nesvig was participating, along with some other high-level executives, in the internal screening of program pilots for the following fall season. Asked by then head of Fox programming Peter Chernin what he thought of one of the shows, he offered a rather loud opinion. Whatever it was Nesvig said (and he cannot recall exactly what he said), it piqued the interest of one Fox exec. Nesvig recalls, “I overheard Rupert Murdoch ask Kellner, ‘Who’s that?'”

A quick introduction was made. It was Nesvig’s first encounter with Murdoch, CEO of Fox parent company News Corporation, and in the months that followed, the two bonded. Fast-forward 18 years, and Nesvig today not only continues to run Fox’s ad sales, but he is also among the executives Murdoch holds in the highest regard in his News Corp. operation.

“Jon has been one of the great rocks on which Fox has been built,” Murdoch says. “He’s been a very wise counsel to me and to everyone at the network. He’s a star in the company and a terrific leader, and takes part in all of the discussions about all aspects of the network.”

Indeed, although Nesvig is on the sales side, Murdoch draws from his long relationship with him, and trusts his opinion enough to get input from him on the programming side as well as the business side.

“I’ll ask him about the flow of programs and what programs we can put on that will bring us the highest CPMs [cost per thousand ad rates],” says Murdoch, who adds that he makes it a point to talk with Nesvig regularly.

“Jon has a relationship with Rupert that every other network sales president only thinks they have with the owner of their company,” says one rival network sales executive, who is familiar with the relationship between the two.

At a network that has had a half-dozen different programming heads over the past 10 years alone, and in an industry where most network sales presidents average five years or less, Nesvig is clearly the éminence grise, with nearly two decades as head of Fox sales, and with 33 years in television sales overall.

Over those years, and particularly during his time at Fox, he has developed a reputation for being a stubborn negotiator—something that annoys a lot of the media agency buyers who have had to do business with him—but has also garnered a lot of respect.

“Jon is an old-school negotiator,” says a media buyer from a major agency, who did not want to speak for attribution. “He’s stubborn and it’s hard to get him to move off of his position. And there are no gray areas or hedging. He’ll either say yes or no.”

While Nesvig concedes that he can be a hard person to negotiate with, he believes “in the end we usually come to an agreement that both sides can live with and that does right by the advertiser.”

When Nesvig first joined Fox, his staff numbered fewer than a dozen. Today it is close to 90. And while Nesvig is not the lead negotiator in the upfronts today—he leaves that task to executive vp Jean Rossi on the entertainment side and executive vp Neal Mulcahey for sports—the strategy they follow clearly comes from him.

Nesvig now serves more as the manager in the background than as the upfront negotiator. “I talk with my people multiple times a day, but they are the ones who do the heavy lifting when it comes to selling,” he says.

“Jon is still the leader behind the scenes,” one media buyer says. “But while he is not out front, and lets his people do the primary negotiating, it is still clear that they are very well trained as to what Jon wants to see accomplished.”

Nesvig’s success as Fox’s top sales executive dates back to his first year there, when in his first upfront, for the 1989-90 TV season, his sales team more than tripled to $235 million Fox’s previous year upfront total of $71 million.

Back then, Fox was only a three-night-a-week network—Saturday, Sunday and Monday—with such programming as 21 Jump Street, Duet, Cops, The Tracey Ullman Show and Married With Children.

“The big battle for us then was to get the advertisers to put money toward us in their broadcast network dollar pool,” Nesvig recalls. “Everyone wanted to pay us like we were syndication. We wanted to be paid broadcast network CPMs, although we still did have a lot of UHF stations at that point.”

One of the early sales controversies Nesvig faced was with Married With Children and the protests and boycott organized against the show by Michigan housewife Terry Rakolta. Ironically for Rakolta, instead of dooming the show, her protests actually fueled ratings and put the show on the map, particularly among the 18-34 audience.

“We did lose some advertising support for the show,” Nesvig recalls, “but because the ratings rose, we were able to offset that with higher CPMs.”

In an odd twist, a few years after the boycott, Nesvig met Rakolta for the first time at a cocktail party thrown by, of all people, Rupert Murdoch. As Nesvig recalls it, a relative of Rakolta was running for political office, and Murdoch held a fundraiser, to which Nesvig was invited. “We made some small talk, but did not discuss the boycott or the show,” Nesvig remembers. “She was very cordial.”

In addition to Married With Children, another show Nesvig has been able to parlay into big dollars for Fox over the years is The Simpsons, which started as short segments within The Tracey Ullman Show, and is currently the longest running show in prime-time television. The Simpsons began its run as a stand-alone series in December 1989, just nine months after Nesvig joined the network.

It wasn’t long after he joined that the network grew into a full-sized operation across the week. Fox added two more nights to its prime-time lineup—Thursday and Friday—before the start of the 1990-91 season, then added Wednesday night during the summer of 1992. Tuesday night was added in January 1993, the same year Fox negotiated to get the National Football League’s Sunday afternoon TV package. The NFL deal enabled Fox to attract some larger stations, expanding the network’s reach. And suddenly, Nesvig’s job became a lot more complicated. Two years after adding the NFL, Fox did a deal with Major League Baseball and by 1999 added Nascar.

During Nesvig’s reign over the Fox sales department, several top-flight television sales people earned their stripes under him before moving on to high-level jobs at other networks. Among them: Dave Cassaro, president of Comcast Networks ad sales; Neil Baker, executive vp of ad sales for E! Networks and for Comcast Networks ad sales; Mike Mandelker, former head of ad sales at UPN and currently executive vp, Eastern sales for Fox News; Laura Nathanson, executive vp of ad sales at ABC Family; and Hank Close, president of MTV Networks ad sales.

Cassaro, who sold the first 30-second spot on a Fox show in 1987, a unit to Bristol Myers on the late-night Joan Rivers Show, says it was Nesvig who “built the Fox prime-time sales from nothing to $1.7 billion.”

Cassaro spent three years working for Nesvig at Fox. But they had met before. Cassaro interviewed with Nesvig for a job at NBC, when Nesvig was executive vp of Eastern sales there. Nesvig didn’t hire him.

Cassaro was later hired at Fox when the network started up in 1987; Nesvig came in as his boss in 1989. While they no longer work together, they find time to play golf and talk business. “A lot of people today look at Jon as being a curmudgeon, because he sometimes has a gruff exterior,” says Cassaro. “But the people who work for him love him. He is a great manager. He may be demanding, but he expects greatness. And while he lets his people do most of the negotiating, he will get involved if he has to.”

Like Cassaro, Mandelker still gets together with his former colleague on a regular basis, as do a number of sales executives who passed through Nesvig’s sphere. Mandelker also has words of praise for Nesvig.

“I learned the meaning of integrity by working with Jon,” he says. “Today he is the dean of television sales. He’s the general who lays out the game plan for his staff and lets them carry out the plan. He doesn’t have to be the front guy.”

Nesvig downplays the accolades and also the importance of his opinions to Murdoch. But one source familiar with the situation says, “Jon reports to Tony Vinciguerra [Fox Networks Group president and CEO] and Ed Wilson [president of Fox Broadcasting], but a lot of times Murdoch goes directly to Jon to solicit his opinions on things.”

Nesvig got to know Murdoch well in the early days at Fox, when both had offices in New York, while most of the other Fox executives were in Los Angeles.

“The company was so much smaller then,” Nesvig recalls, “and Rupert is a wanderer when he is in the building. He would just wander into my office, and we would talk about the network and other things, like politics. Of course, he’s a little more conservative than I am, and we disagreed on some things, but the conversations were always fairly good-natured.”

With Murdoch’s increasingly busy schedule, the two see each other in person now only a few times a month, although during the upfronts, it is not uncommon for Murdoch to call Nesvig every day to get a progress report on how ad sales are going.

“He does listen to my points of view on sales and other things, which I appreciate,” Nesvig says.

Nesvig started his career 40 years ago in the media department at Benton & Bowles, where he worked under Dick Gershon, Phil Guarascio, George Simko and Mike Moore. After a short stint at Independent Media Services, Nesvig joined ABC Radio Networks as a sales development manager. In 1974, he became an account executive at NBC television network in Los Angeles, and was later named vice president of Western sales for NBC. In 1979, he moved to New York as an account executive with NBC, before becoming vice president of daytime and kids sales, and then vp of marketing. He was later named vp and head of Eastern sales for NBC, before he was contacted by Kellner and hired to head Fox sales in the spring of 1989.

During his 15 years at NBC and 18 years at Fox, Nesvig has seen the television business, including the sales side, change quite a bit. “Selling television has become a much more complicated process,” Nesvig says. “It was much simpler when there were only three networks, then only a few cable networks. Selling commercial units was the only thing we had to worry about. Today we have so much more to sell and more ways to sell it, so negotiations are much more intense. In the old days, we could turn away business because there was more demand than inventory. Today, instead of saying no and still having plenty of business, we have to find ways to say yes to everyone we can.”

Nesvig says the current sales environment “is a lot more complex than just selling commercials, as sales departments have to be able to sell shows across multiple platforms with various types of advertising, not just traditional commercials.

“Today we find ourselves getting involved earlier in the process and having to deal with producers and studios before the shows are even produced,” he says.

The networks also have to deal with issues like time-shifted viewing and how the networks can continue to keep advertisers happy with programming that is viewed in recorded form after its live telecast. Nesvig recently announced a technology developed by Fox head of engineering Andy Setos that will allow new commercials to be inserted into programming recorded via DVRs, which would replace commercials that aired in the original telecasts. Fox is in talks with TiVo to test the technology.

And Fox recently formally reinstituted its cross-platform selling unit, calling it Fox One. In the mid-1990s, the company had a cross-platform unit called News Corp. One, which, much like Fox One, enabled advertisers to buy across all the News Corp.-owned media properties. But Nesvig says most of the deals done by News Corp. One involved commercial units on Fox Network, with a smattering of ad dollars spent on other platforms.

“News Corp. One was much like the other television network cross-platform units of the 1990s and early 2000,” Nesvig says. “These units were created more to appeal to Wall Street. But now we really do have tangible assets to sell across platforms, and cross-platform selling has become a real, vital part of the sales process.”

While Rossi oversees the new unit, Claudine Lilien, senior vp, Fox Entertainment Group integrated sales and marketing, is handling the day-to-day operations.

Despite advertisers’ desire to spread their ad dollars across more platforms, Nesvig does not see the television upfront disappearing anytime soon. “The upfront will continue to be around in some form for a long time to come,” he says. “It is still pretty compelling for an advertiser to be able to buy ad inventory in advance, to lock in a price and a rating guarantee, and to get makegoods if that rating is not met. There is more upside than downside for the advertiser, so why would they want it to go away?”

At 62, Nesvig has no plans to retire, although he does see the need to ensure that the next generation of sales people are ready to jump in and run things when it is time for him to step away. “My management would like to see me stay on and so would my staff,” says Nesvig, “so I am taking it one year at a time.”