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In 1992, Lucie Salhany was at the very top of The Hollywood Reporter‘s inaugural Women in Entertainment power list. As the first female to head a broadcast network, the then-20th Television chair’s future was bright. But behind the scenes, her Hollywood days were numbered.
The man who had hired her, Barry Diller, would soon be gone, and she and her new boss, Rupert Murdoch, would not see eye to eye. “When Barry told me he was leaving, it was like the day when Kennedy got shot,” says Salhany, now 71, rolling her eyes as she adds: “Instead, we inherited Rupert.”
She’s seated in the office of her 15,000-square-foot home in a posh Boston suburb, reflecting on her 12 trailblazing years in Hollywood and the abrupt decision, in 1997, to leave it all behind. “Barry was such a gentleman about his word, and Rupert was exactly the opposite. No matter what he said, he would go back on it,” she recalls now. “It was the worst time of my career.”
Long before her tumultuous stint at Fox, where she helped usher in NFL football and The X-Files, Salhany already was making significant strides, forging early ties with such eventual power players as Roger Ailes and Oprah Winfrey. The daughter of a Jordanian grocery store owner (her mother was Lebanese-Syrian), she had started her career as a secretary at WKBF in her native Cleveland and worked her way up to program manager. She then transferred to WLVI in Boston, where she met her husband, restaurateur John Polcari. But Salhany wanted to be a general manager, so she took a post at Taft Broadcasting, heading up the group’s Philadelphia affiliate while keeping her home in Boston. As Taft’s programming vp, she brought then-local talk show host Winfrey into a syndication deal for the group’s 12 stations.
“Some of our general managers weren’t happy because they only looked at it as a show with a black female,” she says. “They were typical middle-aged white guys. But I remember meeting her [in the mid-’80s] at NATPE [National Association of Television Program Executives]. We were in a bar, and Oprah grabbed the mic and sang. I looked at her and said, ‘[She’s] going to be gigantic.’ ”
Thanks to those instincts, Hollywood soon beckoned. In 1985, Salhany, then a new mom to an adopted son, had become president of Paramount TV, overseeing Entertainment Tonight and Star Trek: The Next Generation. Polcari stayed behind, and the couple, who later adopted another son, commuted for the next 12 years.
By 1991, Diller had poached her to run 20th Television. But within a few months, she was diagnosed with breast cancer and Diller had exited. And thus began the era of Murdoch and his “boys club,” with members including Chase Carey. (“Oh, pleeeease. The bete noire.”)
“Rupert called me a feminazi, because I was a Democrat and liked Hillary [Clinton],” she recalls. “Dawn Steel and I would be looking at a monitor and Hillary would be on and he’d say, ‘You like her, don’t you?’ In meetings, I’d say something, and he would say, ‘Well, what does your husband think?’ “
Though the relationship between the two was strained, she helped change the trajectory of Murdoch’s career in a profound way when she introduced him to Ailes, whom she knew from her Cleveland TV days. Salhany had been having problems with newsmagazine A Current Affair, and she enlisted her old friend to help. “The show was run out of New York by a bunch of Rupert’s pals, and they were hard-drinking, hard-playing guys,” she says. “It was such a trashy show, and stations were starting to complain. We had to clean it up, so I called Roger.”
Murdoch caught a glimpse of Ailes in action and asked her to set up a lunch. As for Ailes‘ poor reputation, she remains loyal to the late Fox News chief: “I always loved Roger. He never, ever harassed me. But I had heard …”
Salhany and Murdoch continued to clash, and after three and a half years there, she left, claiming he’d breached terms of her contract. She returned to Paramount to serve as CEO of the newly launched UPN, but in 1997, Polcari got sick with Meniere’s disease, and she realized she’d had enough. “I gotta take my boys home to the East Coast and have a good life,” she remembers thinking.
In the two decades since, Salhany has enjoyed that good life in Boston, while still keeping a foot in the corporate world. She’s served on multiple boards for companies including Compaq and Hewlett-Packard, and she continues to quietly consult for entertainment entities and tech startups. Salhany has remained close with a few from her Hollywood days, too, including the PGA’s Vance Van Petten and agent Barry Weiner.
In a fitting twist, she’s now a partner in a lucrative marijuana company. “I love that business,” she says. “Unlike Hollywood, it’s very relaxing.”
This story first appeared in the 2017 Women in Entertainment Power 100 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.
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