ABC spells mediocrity

Dec 31, 2001  •  Post A Comment

You reach a certain level in corporate America and it is almost impossible to fail. Stay away from spousal abuse and kiddie porn and you’ve pretty much got it made; even if forced to make a sudden exit from your executive suite, you’ll be outfitted with parachutes of gold, platinum or titanium and drift to earth essentially unscathed.
It’s an old story made new by the spectacular failure of the ABC Television Network under the somewhat less-than-inspired guidance of Co-Chairmen Stu Bloomberg and Lloyd Braun. They have compounded failure with failure and brought the network to new lows, and have been recently rewarded with extensions of their contracts, the equivalent of a hearty “well done,” apparently, from the top management at dizzy old Disney, the corporate owner.
What’s galling about ABC’s magnificent Mouse-ka-flop is that executives there are reputedly pointing the finger at a show that was once a network hero and is now vilified as if it were mailroom anthrax: “Who Wants to Be a Millionaire,” a once-thriving game show hosted by an ever-buoyant Regis Philbin.
The story’s well known: how ABC overburdened the show by airing it four nights a week, delighted no doubt at the combination of low production costs and high ad revenue-but now points at it as being responsible for the network’s overall ignominious ratings slide. Disney is notoriously a short-term, shortsighted outfit that will leap at the opportunity to save a buck today without thinking what that may cost tomorrow.
A sad situation
There have even been rumors that Regis, hale fellow and team player, is suddenly “too old” and that the answer is to remodel the show with a younger host. No doubt they’ll want to do more celebrity editions too-a sweeps stunt that robs regular viewers of experiencing the show’s basic pleasure: seeing some average Joe or Joan win a lotta dough-though not nearly what Bloomberg and Braun make monthly.
The two bumbling B’s came into the new season development-shy, to say the least. Why develop expensive new episodic series, comic or dramatic, when “Millionaire” is there to plug the holes? They really would have been better off if they’d brought Roseanne back to run the network. (And by the way, wasn’t “Lloyd Braun” the name of the grinning cluck on “Seinfeld” who appeared to be a crack computer salesman until it was discovered his telephone wasn’t connected to an outside line and all his sales were imaginary?).
That the B-boys are probably bottom-line babies has been underscored by a grim news item: ABC passed on the chance to celebrate the anniversary of its greatest programming triumph, “Roots,” the landmark, milestone, epochal, seminal and whatever miniseries that Fred Silverman bravely scheduled for a solid week’s run in 1977.
In the current TV Guide, J. Max Robins laments that “Roots: Celebrating 25 Years,” which looks back at David Wolper’s magnificent achievement, will air (Jan. 18) not on ABC but on NBC. ABC executives weren’t interested. Robins quotes a mystified Wolper: “`Roots’ is such a part of ABC’s legacy, but I don’t think anybody … there now remembers that.”
Sadder still is a quote from Judith Leonard, who is producing the documentary with Wolper: “We never even got a face-to-face meeting” with ABC top brass, she said. “I was told on the phone by [Senior VP] Andrea Wong that she didn’t think anybody would watch, and whoever did would be old.” And whoever did would be old. God help us.
Bad enough to have no institutional memory. Here is a sadly clear-cut case of having no institutional pride. It’s sort of consistent, though, with another bilious blunder that the ABC Entertainment crew out in Los Angeles committed-rudely uprooting ABC News superstar Barbara Walters from the Friday night time slot she and her “20/20” had made all their own. Barbara got the last laugh: She’s thriving even in new surroundings.
Scraping the barrel
When previewing fall pilots last summer, I was struck by the aggravated mediocrity of the ABC crop. I found 10 new prime-time network shows- a relatively high number-that seemed genuinely worth watching and that could develop into happy new habits-and not a single one of them on ABC.
ABC is becoming the poor man’s Fox. How’s that for poverty-level television?
Unlike some critics, I was keenly unimpressed by the network’s nasty, dark-hued, Byzantine spy thriller “Alias,” a fancy-pants but essentially routine reworking of elements from “La Femme Nikita” that ABC programmers clumsily chose as their Sunday night cornerstone.
The series has not performed very well and is anything but the talk of the town. It isn’t even as good as CBS’s ill-timed love letter to the CIA, “The Agency,” and that show is bunk as well as junk. The gloominess of “Alias” is sodden; its only real attribute is the sexiness and skimpy attire of its star.
It’s that bad
Meanwhile ABC programming geniuses let Stephen Bochco develop a new series about a young female lawyer (“Philly”-silly) and brilliantly slotted it opposite CBS’s established “Judging Amy,” about a young female judge. Counterprogramming, or anti-programming? “Philly” unfortunately plays like somebody imitating Bochco rather than Bochco himself. And say, wasn’t “Bochco” George Costanza’s ATM password on another episode of “Seinfeld”?
Oh no, wait, it was “Bosco.” Sorry. At least it was a meaningless aside. But that’s what ABC is becoming in the network Olympics, a meaningless aside. An asterisk. A footnote. And the real Olympics? They’re on NBC, they’ll air during the February sweeps, and they’re expected to throw still more dirt on ABC’s open grave.
We shouldn’t be personal, not even being acquainted with Messrs. Bloomberg and Braun (“Bialystock and Blume, I presume? Forgive the pun. What pun? Shut up, he thinks he’s witty.”). After all, what they’re doing may be deplorably hard-core short-term stuff, but there’s something very Disneyfied about that.
They do it the company way, so maybe that’s why the company is giving them a pat on the back instead of a kick in the pants.
It was a nice network there for a while. Now it’s time to get out all those “like `Titantic’ but without the band” jokes that Silverman endured during his “Supertrain” days at NBC. “Supertrain” would be a refreshing change from most of the gruel ABC’s dishing up these days. But don’t tell the chefs; they think they’ve whipped up a fabulous feast.