Stephen Chao's career took as many twists and turns as the television shows he created. From his start as a reporter for the National Enquirer to his quick rise and fall at Fox Television, to his recent appointment as co-president of the USA Network, Chao transformed the television industry. Known for creating such shows as America's Most Wanted, Studs, and Cops, Chao earned a reputation for controversy and unconventional behavior that has riled some while winning the praise of others.
Chao was born into a middle class family in Ann Arbor, Michigan. His maternal grandfather had been a prominent official in pre-revolutionary China and served for a time as that nation's economic minister to the United States. It's possible that he influenced his grandson more than he knew. Chao noted in an interview with Sallie Hofmeister of the Los Angeles Times that "My grandfather was endlessly involved in what he called social investigation and spent a lot of time trying to find out whether there was cannibalism in China. I consider myself a social investigator with a National Enquirer curiosity, although I hope I use some editing filters in my work." Chao's grandmother contributed to his future creative leanings as well. "My grandmother was this Chinese lady who came to America late in life with a heavy accent—a straight and proper woman who responded to nothing in American culture except the WWF (World Wrestling Federation) and (wrestler) Bobo Brazil. She liked the theater of it."
Chao's parents divorced when he was eight years old, and along with his mother and siblings, he relocated to New Hampshire in the early 1960s. Chao was an excellent student. He earned a scholarship to the exclusive Phillips Academy in Exeter, New Hampshire, and eventually entered Harvard, where he majored in classical studies. He graduated cum laude in 1977 and went on to earn an MBA from the Harvard Business School after a two-year stint as a reporter for the National Enquirer. Chao is married to Irina Chao and has two sons.
Chao developed an interest in movies after leaving Harvard, and tried—unsuccessfully—to land a job with a Hollywood studio. In the meantime, he worked as a reporter for the National Enquirer, covering such topics as celebrity infertility problems, UFO sightings, and funerals. Chao loved the fame his position gave him, and, while the Enquirer was often criticized as a sensational tabloid, Chao believed it was an important social phenomenon. Chao did not give up his goal of working in Hollywood, however. As he told New York magazine in 1993, his interest in the business was not the kind of "Story where I creep into the theater and dream about the nickelodeons." Instead, Chao "Remembers seeing Road Warrior six times. It was, to me, totally original—visually, emotionally, contrily [sic], everything! I had no idea this could be done on film."
Rejected by the studios and through with the Enquirer, Chao wound up in New York working as a fund raiser for movie producer Dino De Laurentis. It was not what he hoped it would be. But Chao learned that international media mogul Rupert Murdoch was in the market for a Hollywood studio. Chao was soon hired by the mergers and acquisitions department of Murdoch News Service. He was one step closer to fulfilling his goal of working in Hollywood.
After two years with Murdoch News Service, Chao got the break he was looking for. Murdoch purchased Fox studios and wanted to expand its reach from movies into television. Chao was asked to become part of the creative team that would make it happen at the newly created Fox Television network.
Chao's new job, under Fox president Barry Diller, was to develop innovative, low-cost shows for the startup network. His first attempts were less than successful. Short-lived programs such as The Ron Reagan Show, a talk show hosted by the son of former President Reagan, the children's show Dr. Science, and the game show King of the Mountain are typical of Chao's early Fox work. While these shows failed to catch on with viewers, Chao was only just beginning to test the creative waters.
It was not always smooth sailing for the new network executive. Chao once got Fox president Barry Diller so angry that Diller threw a videocassette tape across the room, denting the wall. Chao framed the dent and even convinced Diller to autograph it. The two often clashed, but the clashes produced some of the most innovative and controversial television programming on the air.
Chao's first success was America's Most Wanted, a program featuring dramatic recreations of violent crimes that asked viewers for their assistance in catching the criminals. The show had problems gaining acceptance from Fox executives because it was unlike any other show on television. But it cost so little to produce—two thirds less than typical network shows—and it was so popular that Chao got the recognition he was looking for.
Chao's next success was Cops, a documentary-style program in which a cameraman follows on-duty police officers through some of the more violent neighborhoods in the country. Though some criticized the series for its violence and apparent moral indifference to the persons shown, Chao saw matters differently. He told New York magazine, "To me, there isn't a lesson. We're just showing something that is. It's not coded with music and narration and writing and directing. It's just edited, in a really simple way. It's pure, and you derive you're own lessons."
Following these shows, he developed Studs. Chao's late-night take on the old "Dating Game" program featured young men and women—both usually beautiful—discussing dating and sexual fantasies in what Chao called "silly" language. While controversial, the program was a huge hit, making more than $20 million a year. Fox chief Rupert Murdoch, however, who was uncomfortable with its format and content, abruptly cancelled the show two years after its debut.
Chao's brash style quickly landed him in trouble—and on the street. Soon after his promotion to president of Fox News in 1992, Chao was among the speakers at a conference for Fox executives and guests in Snowmass, Colorado. Chao spoke on "The Threat to Democratic Capitalism Posed by Modern Culture." He focused on how television programs tended to be less critical of violence than they were of nudity and sexuality. To punctuate his point, Chao hired a male stripper to perform on stage. Rupert Murdoch, seated in the front row along with his wife, Anna, and former Defense Secretary Dick Cheney, fired Chao almost immediately. Chao then traveled with his family and even worked briefly at a McDonald's in Redondo Beach, California, before a brief return to the Fox movie division to develop film ideas.
In 1993, Chao formed his own production company, Stephen Chao, Inc., to develop movie and television shows. He was soon hired by his former Fox boss, Barry Diller, to consult on the development of Q2, a high-end counterpart to Diller's successful home shopping channel, QVC. Q2 was scheduled to start broadcasting in 1994, but Diller sold out his interest in QVC before production on Q2 could begin.
Chao explored other opportunities as well. In 1995, he began developing a late-night talk show for MCA television called "HelloGoodnight." The program, considered for launch in 1996, never materialized. Later in 1996, Chao began consulting with a Venezuelan media concern, Cisneros Television Group, to produce up to a dozen channels for its satellite network.
But Chao was destined to be reunited with his old mentor and former boss, Barry Diller, once again. In February, 1998, Diller purchased the USA Network and its sister channels, the SciFi Channel and the Home Shopping Network from Universal Studios. Chao was hired as president of programming and marketing, along with Stephen Brenner, president of operations, to replace USA Network founder Kay Koplovitz, who was pushed out by Diller.
At USA, Chao was in charge of some of the television shows that touched his family early on, particularly the WWF, one of the network's highest rated weekly shows. In addition, USA produces a number of its own movies, such as its adaptation of Herman Melville's Moby Dick, and highly rated shows like La Femme Nikita, Highlander: The Series, Baywatch, and the controversial Jerry Springer Show. Chao believes USA has received a bad rap for its programming. As he told the Los Angeles Times, "Based on its ratings, it couldn't be doing so badly."
Social and Economic Impact
Stephen Chao has earned substantial praise and criticism for his many creations. Chao told the Los Angeles Times "I'm not into gratuitous and sleazy stuff. It always comes from a point of view you've never seen." Some, like Barry Diller, call Chao "one of the most interesting people I know," with "an instinctive, contrarian program sensibility." Rupert Murdoch, too, held Chao in high regard. On the night he fired Chao, Murdoch afterwards called him his "best lieutenant." Others, however, are not so complimentary. Critic Gerald Howard wrote in the Nation magazine that Chao, along with other, mostly Ivy League-educated media personalities, was a producer of "Stupid." "Stupid," according to Howard, is what happens when "It is much easier and more lucrative to pander to your audience, push their buttons, confirm their prejudices, congratulate them on their limitations," than to "feel simpatico (sympathy) with their characters and product and audience."
For better or for worse, Chao redefined television programming. Shows like America's Most Wanted, Cops, and Studs spawned imitators on other networks, and his early successes helped establish Fox as a potent rival to the big three television networks for viewers and advertising dollars.
Chronology: Stephen Chao
1977: Graduated cum laude from Harvard.
1977: Writer for the National Enquirer.
1983: Joined News Corp.
1992: President of Fox News.
1992: Fired from Fox Network.
1993: Formed Stephen Chao, Inc.
1993: Began development of Q2.
1996: Developed programming for Galaxy Latin America.
1998: Hired as president of USA Network.
Chao's early success and methods continued to shape his outlook on television—even the sort of shows he wanted his children to watch. Chao contended that most programs were overproduced, lacking the real-life situations and energy that he tried to instill in his own shows. There were some exceptions. He told the Los AngelesTimes that he admires the NBC program Homicide: Life on the Street because of its simple look and realism, and the highly rated Comedy Central cartoon South Park for its "rare form and pure voice." He also said "he'd rather his two boys watch the unfiltered version of The Jerry Springer Show (a USA Network production) than the 11 p.m. news."
Sources of Information
Freeman, Michael. "Stephen Chao Developing Talk Show for MCA." Mediaweek, 6 October 1995.
Hofmeister, Sallie. "Quirky Programming Whiz Puts Spin on USA Networks." Los Angeles Times, 1998. Available from http://www.latimes.com/HOME/NEWS/BUSINESS.
Howard, Gerald. "Divide and Deride." The Nation, 20 December 1993.
Lafayette, Jon. "Chao Take Programming Ideas to Another America." Electronic Media, 4 November 1996.
Shapiro, Eben. "Tabloid-TV Veteran Chao Named Top USA Networks Programmer." Wall Street Journal, 20 April 1998.
Notable Asian Americans. Detroit: Gale Research, 1995.
The Asian American Almanac, Detroit: Gale Research, 1995.
"Stephen Chao To Source Product and Produce Shows for Q2." PR Newswire, 2 September 1993.
"Chao, Stephen." Business Leader Profiles for Students. . Encyclopedia.com. (January 23, 2019). https://www.encyclopedia.com/education/economics-magazines/chao-stephen
"Chao, Stephen." Business Leader Profiles for Students. . Retrieved January 23, 2019 from Encyclopedia.com: https://www.encyclopedia.com/education/economics-magazines/chao-stephen
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