When Fox TV’s newest star used a live nude male to make a point about censorship at a management conference two weeks ago, his bright idea burned up his boss. Fox CEO Rupert Murdoch promptly fired the prankster, Stephen Chao, 36, the handpicked up-and-comer who had helped create such Fox-y fare as Studs, America’s Most Wanted, and Cops. Chao, who had been tapped only 10 weeks ago to become president of the Fox Television Stations, immediately became part of the year’s show-biz lore. (Apparently, Chao had intended to have another man come out and shoot the nude man with a blank, then ask the audience, pointing to each man, ”Which is worse?” Then he realized that with Secretary of Defense Dick Cheney’s presence, the place would be crawling with security, and abandoned his shooter. ”I just stood there,” says Marco Iacovelli, the waiter-model who undressed. ”It’s not like anyone yelled ‘giddyap’ when I took my pants off.”)
Since then, one question has dominated: Why did Chao do it? How could such an apparently brilliant exec display what Murdoch called such ”terrible misjudgment”? From interviews with his coworkers, the picture of Chao that emerges is that of a maverick in extremis. A Harvard grad (he studied the classics), former investment banker, and reporter for the National Enquirer, Chao wasn’t initiating ”a career death wish,” as one source puts it, ”maybe just feeling a little too corporate.” (One attendee said the point of the conference was that ”Fox would like to be taken more seriously.”)
Supporters and detractors all say Chao never behaved in typical corporate fashion. ”You always had to expect the unexpected from Stephen,” says one Fox insider. ”That’s just his nature.” At one meeting headed by his mentor, former Fox chairman Barry Diller, Chao reportedly just got up and walked out when Diller criticized him for not wearing a tie. At another meeting, when Chao angrily called Diller a liar, Diller flung a videocasette at him and dented the wall. Chao framed the video.
Chao’s nontraditional quirks didn’t stop there. As one source recalls, ”Chao would take pitch meetings and keep his back to the people talking to him to see how they would react. Or he would play with this baby diaper on his desk, filled with fake baby poop, to see if people would say anything.”
Chao’s ouster follows the recent resignations of several high-ranking Fox execs, including Diller, former Twentieth Television president Harris Katleman, and Greg Nathanson, who reportedly left his post as Fox News president after Chao was given some of his duties. While most industry insiders are uncertain what Fox’s turmoil at the top means for its future, one source says, ”The changes are indicative of one thing — that Fox is just not the same fun place it used to be. They realize they are becoming a network.”