If you’ve ever wondered how to do something, you’ve probably stumbled across Stephen Chao’s site. WonderHowTo.com is the internet’s compiler of how-to videos, claiming 10 million unique visitors each month, half of them from the U.S. It isn’t quite the numbers of, say, Fox TV, but given the precipitous decline of TV, the day isn’t far off when Chao’s do-it-yourselfer domain may reach par with Fox in eyeballs pulled.
As impressive as Chao’s site is — with an estimated 400,000 videos cataloged into 424 sub-categories — his claim to fame remains his exploits of the late 80s and early 90s while helping a nascent Fox network blossom to challenge ABC, CBS and NBC. For six years Chao ran himself ragged “with no bathroom break” to add freshness and excitement to Fox’s prime-time fare. He is credited with the hits America’s Most Wanted, Cops and Studs. Rupert Murdoch even elevated him to the post of Fox President after Barry Diller’s departure.
That title lasted 10 weeks until June of 1992 when Chao hired a male stripper to take the stage at a Fox management conference attended by then Defense Secretary Dick Cheney and his wife Lynne. Chao said he did it to illustrate his point that American TV is more skittish about nudity and sexuality than about violence. Murdoch, frankly, didn’t give a damn, and fired Chao on the spot.
That precipitated a seven-month period of intense navel-gazing that led to Chao’s compulsion to satisfy a burgeoning curiosity about McDonald’s, his favorite fast-food restaurant. He drove to the Redondo Beach store and signed on to flip burgers and assemble Egg McMuffins.
“It wasn’t the weirdest thing I had done in a relationship,” Chao says to explain why he wasn’t stopped by his live-in girlfriend (who became his wife, then his ex) with whom he had a two-year-old son.
Chao claims he isn’t “vain or insecure enough” to have worried about how this choice of employment might look to others. The restaurant was far enough from his Santa Monica/Westside orbit that he never encountered anyone he knew while working there. Word got out anyway. The McDonald’s episode fed into the edgy badboy legend that had arisen during Chao’s hair-on-fire days at Fox.
By early 1993 Stephen Chao formed a production company under his name and hunkered down in a nondescript Santa Monica office complex with a handful of staffers to develop projects for Murdoch’s Fox studios and for Q2, an offshoot of Barry Diller’s QVC home shopping network. Chao deems few of the projects to be worth remembering.
In April 1998 Chao returned to being a TV executive when Barry Diller bought USA Network and the Sci Fi Channel and hired Chao as president of programming and marketing. Chao is credited with acquiring Monk from ABC. It ran on USA from July 2002 through December 2009, becoming the most popular scripted drama series in cable television history. But before that happened, in November of 2001 Chao resigned as President of USA Cable, a position to which he had been promoted just a year and a half earlier.
During this period Chao’s quirkiness again came through in his choice of housing. In January of 2000 he bought an old 13-unit apartment complex a couple blocks from Santa Monica Bay near Montana Boulevard. He converted six units for his family, four to serve as a big guest house for his mother and the remaining three units into additional guest quarters.
By 2006 Chao had absorbed enough media-building strategies from two decades of association with empire-builders Murdoch and Diller to spawn the WonderHowTo concept along with co-founder Mike Goedecke. They essentially sought to do what his former bosses had done — build a media pipeline that serves up the creativity and passion of others, albeit on a more modest scale. WonderHowTo was initially financed with $500,000 out of the founders’ pockets. It later attracted the Cambridge, Massachusetts venture fund General Catalyst for some series A funding. Next