PROFILE: Irreverence makes Fox Comedy Central's PR star

From his first post-college job as an HBO messenger, Tony Fox went on to become corporate communications EVP at Comedy Central. But much of the time, his job is no laughing matter.

From his first post-college job as an HBO messenger, Tony Fox went on to become corporate communications EVP at Comedy Central. But much of the time, his job is no laughing matter.

On April 20, 1999, Tony Fox arrived at his New Jersey home a shaken man. Like most of America, he had been riveted that afternoon by the blanket coverage of the school shootings that had left 15 dead in Littleton, CO. But, though the tragedy was thousands of miles away, it would be brought home in the time it takes to answer the phone. Fox, head of communications for Comedy Central, got a call from the channel's West Coast office. The news was devastating: Local police had taken into custody one of the killers' schoolmates, who was wearing a shirt featuring one of the most popular characters on Comedy Central's most popular show, South Park. Fox turned on his TV to see the image of a "Kill Kenny" T-shirt, worn under a black trench coat, being broadcast across the nation. The longtime TV publicist was experienced at defending the hit cartoon series, which was reviled by a host of conservative organizations from the second it hit the screen. But this was different from the bleating of the right-wing pundits. People - kids - were dead. "The blood was draining out of my head so fast I became faint and almost passed out," Fox recalled recently. "I'm thinking, 'Game over, we're done.'" It turned out to be a near miss. The student in the T-shirt turned out to have nothing to do with the murders. But the moment highlighted how Comedy Central had evolved from a stomping ground for little-known comics to a vibrant, irreverent voice very near the center of American culture. Even before Columbine, South Park was a key part of various dialogues about morality and television. And soon after, as Jon Stewart took over as host of The Daily Show, the network gained more cachet. As Fox puts it, "We became the true alternative voice of politics." But it wasn't always like this. Comedy Central grew out of struggling comedy ventures by Time Warner and Viacom, and it starved for attention in the early days. With only one success in its first several years, the critical favorite Mystery Science Theater 3000, the network's appeal was based on shock. Its publicity strategy, essentially a long series of attention-grabbing stunts that was strategized and executed in part by Dan Klores Communications, followed suit. To hear Fox describe this all now is to take a tour through the offal of 1990s pop culture: Judy Tenuta and her accordion dropping from a flagpole in Times Square. A casting call for Nancy Kerrigan and Tonya Harding look-alikes at a Manhattan skating rink. Rap songs about Joey Buttafuoco. A Times Square newscast featuring Connie Chung, after she was dumped by CBS Evening News. Many of these stunts were the product of the buzz committee, a daily meeting of creative minds who would try to latch Comedy Central's fledgling brand to news events. "With one show worth watching out of a 24-hour schedule, what do you do?" he says. "We needed more viewers than that, so we started to realize the importance of building a brand - or a personality - for the channel. Eventually we shifted gears from promoting the brand to promoting the shows. Instead of stunts doing the talking for us, our programming does." Fox himself is what you'd expect from the person charged with publicity for Comedy Central. Brash, effusive, more than a little profane, he has the confidence of a man who worked his way up from the bottom. Fox grew up in New Jersey and attended Ithaca College, graduating in 1979. Armed with an English degree, his job prospects were few, so he took a messenger job at HBO, where his office consisted of a phone on a wall. One day, a network executive enlisted Fox to help him take home a television he'd purchased as a Christmas gift. The two got along, and Fox was able to parlay the favor into a job in the PR department. Quentin Schaffer, SVP of corporate communications at HBO, says that Fox was ambitious from the beginning. "There was lots of hustle," he says. "He was always volunteering for things, generating story ideas." After eight years at HBO, much of which was spent in sports promotion, he was recruited by CBS to head up the network's sports publicity. He lasted there for only a year, before moving to Comedy Central, where he was director of PR. He would eventually work his way up to the title of EVP of corporate communications. During his tenure, Fox has honed a media relations strategy founded on openness. Fraizier Moore, a television writer for the Associated Press, calls Fox "the ultimate enabler. He's always coming up with story ideas." "I don't say, 'No comment,'" Fox says, except for when he's being questioned about pending litigation. Fox has also been proactive about giving reporters access to the company, at times opening up staff meetings to them. He likens that tactic to inducing something like the Stockholm Syndrome in writers. Whether this will change now that Comedy Central is fully owned by Viacom's MTV Networks is certainly a concern for Fox. "Because MTV has a more cautious approach to the press, my hope is I won't be reined in from some of the more outrageous things we've done," he says. "And I'm pretty sure that won't happen. MTV bought us because we have a valuable and vibrant brand." Moore has known Fox since the network launched, and has seen how the publicity strategy has changed. "I don't think he has to scramble the way he did at first," he says. "But I'm continually amazed at how his enthusiasm has not diminished over the years. If they need less of a push than they used to, I don't think he's realized it." ----- Tony Fox 2000-present EVP, corporate comms, Comedy Central 1996-1999 SVP, corporate comms, Comedy Central 1994-1995 VP, corporate comms, Comedy Central 1991-1993 Director of PR, Comedy Central 1990 Director of sports publicity, CBS 1988-1989 Director of sports publicity, HBO 1985-1987 Manager of sports publicity and special projects, HBO 1981-1984 Various junior PR positions, HBO

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