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Lyne takes over ABC’s hot seat

Jan 14, 2002  •  Post A Comment

A week ago, longtime ABC marketing chief Alan Cohen encountered longtime ABC programming executive Stu Bloomberg in the halls at ABC.
“I’m leaving,” chirped Mr. Cohen, who is going to market movies for 20th Century Fox.
“I’m fired,” said Mr. Bloomberg, who had just learned he was to take the fall for the disintegration of ABC’s prime-time lineup.
Enter Susan Lyne, the network’s movie-miniseries guru, who has for the past three years demonstrated a knack for nursing more long-form hits (“Life With Judy Garland: Me and My Shadows” last season, the remake of “Brian’s Song” this season) than misses (“Billy Beat Bobby” last season), but who has never developed a TV drama or comedy series, both formats in which the odds of failure dwarf the odds of success.
Equally important, Ms. Lyne now becomes embroiled in ABC’s prime-time embroglio, a block of programming that’s determined, ultimately, by committee, with all committee members eyeing the reaction of the chairman of the committee, Disney CEO Michael Eisner, himself a former ABC programmer.
As former ABC Entertainment
President Ted Harbert famously once said of negotiating the politics inside Disney’s ABC, “It’s a job where you get to say yes or no a lot. And how you say it and when you say it determines how successful you’ll be.”
Ms. Lyne is not just being trained on the job, she’s being trained on the run. And by many of the same ABC and Disney executives who, by being too hands-on (though claiming to be too hands-off), helped trigger a two-year free fall from first to fourth place among the 18- to 49-year-old viewers who drive advertising buys and ABC programming decisions.
If all goes according to Hoyle, it’ll be a plot twist that’s part “Joan of Arc” and part “Working Girl”: Heroine plucked from the ranks supplies the vision, stops the bleeding, stifles the infighting and rallies the troops so they can win the battles and the war and otherwise save from itself an organization prone to killing its golden geese.
Solid judgment
Susan Lyne has a big fan club that believes she can do it, that she has the rare combination of golden gut instinct and tough-it-out-guts to become the strong television programmer ABC desperately needs. That means picking the right product and having the prodigious people skills that will see her through the layered thicket of management at ABC, where longtime relationships sometimes trump reporting lines.
For starters, Ms. Lyne is said to have a solid relationship with ABC Television President Steve Bornstein, who previously built ESPN into a powerhouse for Disney. Friends say she bonded with Mr. Bornstein when both went through Disney “boot camp,” the company’s infamous initiation ritual. The idea is to give Disney executives a whirlwind, sometimes hands-on, examination of the empire’s businesses.
As part of their boot camp training, the executives are taken to one of the company’s theme parks, put into costume as a Disney character, and shooed out to get a good look at the public on whom the company’s future depends.
“The experience was both fabulous and terrifying, because when I put that head on, it is really close quarters under there,” Ms. Lyne told Electronic Media last week. “I was incredibly claustrophobic and was not quite sure I was going to be able to manage my 15 or 20 minutes out there.”
Ms. Lyne was Smee, Capt. Hook’s somewhat befuddled first mate, but, “Everybody thought I was one of the Seven Dwarfs,” she said. “Because you’re not allowed to talk, the only thing those Disney characters can do is to blow a kiss. That’s the only sound you can make, so I couldn’t say … `No, I’m Smee.”’
Deja vu?
And therein lies metaphorical grist to spare for those who believe that the deck is stacked against Ms. Lyne because ABC is fighting not just for prime-time improvements but indeed for its very soul and she will not have the breathing room she needs to grow into her job.
“ABC prime time has been dysfunctional for years,” one Disney insider said. “Does nobody remember the Jamie Tarses mess?”
Six years ago, the then highly touted Ms. Tarses was brought in to replace Mr. Harbert as ABC Entertainment president. Mr. Harbert heard about his replacement one morning when Warren Littlefield, then at rival NBC, called him at home with the news. A year later, Mr. Bloomberg had to be transferred from another ABC job to supervise Ms. Tarses.
At the time Bob Iger, now Walt Disney Co. president, had the job Mr. Bornstein now occupies. In an infamous 1997 New York Times Magazine article that chronicled the mess ABC was in at the time, it was written that Mr. Iger didn’t have time to coddle Ms. Tarses because “he had his own problems, receiving sometimes 10, 12 calls a day from Eisner asking about this show or that cost.”
In the intervening years, sources said, Mr. Eisner has not grown less interested in ABC. In fact, Mr. Eisner, 59, recently told Fortune magazine, “I would love, every morning, to go over and spend two hours at ABC. Even though my children tell me that I’m in the wrong generation and I don’t get it anymore, I am totally convinced that I could sit with our guys and make ABC No. 1 in two years.”
And Mr. Iger has said he will now be paying closer attention to ABC.
“The ironic thing about these public pronouncements by Bob and Michael is that they’ve been hands-on with ABC prime time all along,” said one veteran TV executive with close ties to Disney. “For them to imply that they’re the cavalry riding in on horses to save the network now that it’s in the toilet is baloney.”
Too many cooks
Yet another Disney insider said, “I don’t know if ABC can be fixed unless-and until-Eisner and Iger, in some real sense, let it go. By that I mean bring in a team and let them go to town without interference.”
This executive said Mr. Eisner and Mr. Iger would be well served to let Mr. Bornstein “run the place and not force him to constantly look over his shoulders.” This high-level manager was incensed that Mr. Bloomberg was fired while Lloyd Braun, who was co-chairman with Mr. Bloomberg, survived the bloodletting. The executive’s explanation? “Golf. Lloyd played the game, and I’m really talking about the game of Disney politics, better than Stu.”
“Give Susan her shot,” the executive said, “but make it a real shot.” The executive also suggested that it might be time for Alex Wallau, president of the ABC Television Network, to step aside. “Alex is Bob’s man, not Steve’s,” the insider said. One person who some insiders suggested could replace Mr. Wallau is Carole Black, who has received high marks for running the Lifetime cable network ABC co-owns. Last month, Multichannel News reported that Lifetime denied the then-hot rumor that Ms. Black was headed for Burbank. “Wall Street would react very positively if Black went over to ABC,” the executive said.
In his public pronouncements last week, Mr. Iger said he was giving his “support and leadership” to Ms. Lyne and was counting on a quick turnaround at ABC.
“He’s not going to micromanage me. He has no interest in reading scripts or hearing pitches or any of the day-to-day stuff. He just wants to know that there is a strategy and a focus to the work we’re doing,” Ms. Lyne said.
Ms. Lyne also knows that Mr. Bloomberg was popular in the Hollywood creative community, so she said she is already reaching out to key players there and at the studios, where ABC has been beating the bushes for nearly two months in search of more properties, particularly comedies.
Plethora of challenges
“I think I’ve read everything that’s in,” said Ms. Lyne, who is being inundated by projects commissioned by the departed Mr. Bloomberg and by Mr. Braun, who continues as ABC Entertainment chairman and is, insist some insiders, Ms. Lyne’s real boss.
Competitors and suppliers say ABC is in panic mode because its comedy development so far is a bust. ABC says it’s not panicky, just interested in having as many choices as possible. But network novice comedy executive Julie Glucksman also lost her job last week whe
n ABC named veteran Stephanie Leifer as its comedy development hitter.
Midway through the current season, Ms. Lyne inherits a Sunday night that’s working, a Saturday that might work with James Bond movies, and a two-pack of comedies (“My Wife and Kids” and “According to Jim”) that gives ABC reason to smile for an hour on an otherwise struggling Wednesday night.
Elsewhere, the lineup is filled with once-strong franchises that have been all but killed by overuse (“Who Wants to Be a Millionaire” and Drew Carey), misuse (“NYPD Blue”) and abuse (“20/20” and Barbara Walters) and with newer shows that have remained in the lineup against all odds (“Once & Again”) or at the expense of others (“Philly”).
With the NFL now headed for the Super Bowl, ABC’s Monday night fortunes for the rest of the season will be tied largely to theatricals, with minis developed by Ms. Lyne expected to be sweeps players: “Stephen King’s Rose Red,” six hours scheduled for later this month; and “Dinotopia,” the six-hour fantasy likely to run in May.
Meanwhile, affiliates have grown hoarse from begging for relief across the board-but especially in the 10 o’clock hour, which has an effect on their late local newscasts. Particularly, the affiliates want Ms. Lyne to-and Hollywood expects her to-give up on the still-shrinking “Once & Again,” which has never grown into much more than a pet of Mr. Bloomberg and TV critics.
She’s got Wall Street, where disenchantment with ABC parent Disney Co. is widespread, listening to every tick of the Nielsen meters.
And she’s got all of Hollywood scrutinizing her every move and choice, even her belief that she can commute between work in Burbank and home in New York, where “60 Minutes” producer and husband George Crile and two teen-age daughters live.
“Ask Jeff Zucker,” said one veteran network executive and producer, referring to the newsman-turned-NBC Entertainment president who has done his share of commuting in the last year but who cannot deny that he must spend the vast majority of his time in Burbank.
Like Mr. Zucker, Ms. Lyne was a journalist known for an acute sense of pop-cultural hot buttons and an ability to build loyal and successful teams at Premiere magazine (where “nobody ever wanted to leave,” said Cindi Stivers, now president and editor-in-chief of Time Out New York) and in ABC’s minis-and-movies division. (“She does not speak in cliches,” said Kate Forte, the producer of ABC’s successful “Oprah Winfrey Presents” movie franchise. “Never, never, never.”)
Unlike Mr. Zucker, the successful executive producer of “Today” who took over NBC’s top-ranked entertainment division just a year ago, Ms. Lyne must redefine ABC, which has recently expressed a yearning for the family-style comedies that brought it so much success, only to be spurned in an attempt to mimic NBC’s successes with hip comedy.
High hopes
Ms. Lyne’s list of personal viewing choices is heavy with hour-long series: “Alias,” “The Practice” and “NYPD Blue” on ABC; “Smallville” and “Gilmore Girls” on The WB; and NBC’s “The West Wing.”
“And still, occasionally, `ER,”’ she told EM last week, “usually only during sweeps to see what incredible disaster they have pulled out of a hat.”
“I think it is clearly very important to launch some new comedies,” she said, adding that while “there is some learning curve, I am not coming in blind.”
Sam Haskell, executive vice president and worldwide head of television for the William Morris Agency, thinks Ms. Lyne will be a hit on Madison Avenue (“She’s looking for every way to get the most eyeballs on the table”) and in Hollywood.
“I think the community in general is almost 100 percent going to embrace this choice,” he said.
Chuck Ross contributed to this story.