Fox Television Group will lose one of its longest-serving employees at the end of 2015 when chief operating officer Joe Earley steps down. Earley will be leaving after a 21-year tenure at the network. To put that in perspective, people born when Earley joined Fox as a senior publicist can now legally purchase Duff beer, a Fox reference that predates them by several years.

After rising through the publicity and marketing ranks over the last two decades, Earley was promoted to COO of the newly named Fox Television Group in August 2014, shortly after that unit of 21st Century Fox Inc. was formed to house both the network and the studio 20th Century Fox. 

In a statement, Earley said he’s been itching to get back to his creative roots:

“All of this new opportunity, however, as rewarding as it is, has led me further and further from the creative process, which is really where my heart wants to be. So, while I will miss my extended Fox family terribly, it is time for me to pursue the proverbial ‘next chapter.’ As a former publicist, I thought I would never use that phrase, but it turns out that sometimes it's true. ”

Generally, that kind of sunshine would indicate serious spin, but Earley did begin his career working with producer Gale Anne Hurd ("The Walking Dead"), and by all accounts seems genuinely content with the decision.

joe-earley-fox-coo Fox TV Group Joe Early will be stepping down at the end of the year. Photo: Brian Bowen Smith/FOX

And whatever he does next -- he’s remaining mum for now -- the COO’s departure comes in the midst of a rough fall season for television in general and Fox in particular. The network debuted five new series this September: comedies "Grandfathered" and "The Grinder," dramas "Rosewood" and "Minority Report," and horror-comedy "Scream Queens." "Rosewood" is buoyed by monster hit "Empire," which is so powerful it can even boost the ratings for shows that air in the timeslot before it, and "Scream Queens" experiences enough of a lift via advertiser-supported delayed viewing that it squeaks into the black.

Categorizing the live ratings for the others as “disappointing” is being charitable, though such is the state of broadcast TV that, while "Minority Report" is essentially dead after its 10 episodes finish airing, both "Grandfathered" and "Grinder" were picked up for full seasons. 

It’s a tough time to be a network executive whose name isn’t Leslie Moonves (president and CEO of CBS Corp.), and whether he’s being scapegoated for a bad fall or is genuinely tired of the C-suite life, Earley isn’t the only high-profile exec getting out of Dodge. Longtime CBS Entertainment chairman Nina Tassler, who joined the company in 1997, will hand the reins to CBS Entertainment president Glenn Gellar at the end of the year, and Kevin Reilly, Earley’s former boss, left Fox in May 2014 and has spent the past year running TNT and TBS.