Fixing ABC not as easy as 1-2-3

May 6, 2002  •  Post A Comment

Dead man walking.
That’s what some at the Mouse House were calling Steve Bornstein behind his back not long before the terse announcement was made that he had quit as president of ABC Television, just shy of his first anniversary in the job he had first held for a few months in 1999.
There’s still no definitive answer on whether the brash and brilliant 50-year-old executive who made his mark on the world by building the ESPN empire had indeed quit or was fired.
Either way, it was office politics that did him in. And it’s deja vu all over again.
With the exception of Susan Lyne, who replaced Stu Bloomberg as ABC Entertainment president in January, the team that must engineer a dramatic turnaround is the same team that led the network out of first place and into quicksand with a series of well-publicized fumbles and losses that have made ABC and parent company Walt Disney whipping boys from Wall Street to Main Street USA: Disney Chairman Michael Eisner, Disney President Bob Iger, ABC Television Network President Alex Wallau and ABC Entertainment Chairman Lloyd Braun.
Once again, there is no one inside who can or will challenge Mr. Eisner and Mr. Iger, both products of ABC who have boasted they could fix the network problems with one executive hand tied behind their well-protected backs and the other one pulling the strings of the peculiarly politicized bureaucracy they have created but not empowered.
“It’s always clear who’s in charge. It’s never clear who else can make decisions,” said one head of a powerful station group.
“If they spent half as much time doing their jobs as they do playing politics, we’d all be better off,” said another station group executive.
Peeling back layer after layer of illdefined authority (one of the more frequently asked questions of ABC’s PR operation was how to distinguish between Mr. Bornstein and Mr. Wallau’s roles) sucks all the life out of a take-charge executive such as Mr. Bornstein, said those who’ve known him well.
Bornstein: Black and blue
Rumor mills had ground furiously after Mr. Bornstein’s return to ABC following his doomed mission to turn Go.com into an Internet kingdom for Disney. Many rumors indicated a wish to replace ABC executives with people who helped him turn ESPN into a multinational multimedia cash machine in the 1980s and 1990s. There was much speculation early this year that Mr. Bornstein was on the verge of vanquishing Mr. Wallau, a longtime Iger loyalist, to New York.
The rumor that had the longest legs, however, intimated that Mr. Eisner and Mr. Iger wanted to replace Mr. Bornstein with Carole Black, the Lifetime Entertainment Services president and CEO, who is said to have demurred, but who helped keep the rumors simmering when she didn’t sign a new contract this winter.
ABC has energetically denied the rumors and declared as “myth” the universally accepted belief that whatever else might be in flux at ABC, this much was certain: Mr. Bornstein, who had been installed at the top of the network by Mr. Eisner, intensely disliked Mr. Wallau, and Mr. Iger, a style-conscious man who coolly calculates each move, intensely disliked Mr. Bornstein, whose history of playing as hard as he worked had earned him a reputation as a bit of a wild man.
ABC insists that with the $5.3 billion acquisition and retooling of the Family Channel and the installation of Ms. Lyne, who earned high regard as head of ABC’s movies and miniseries team, Mr. Bornstein, who wouldn’t have been deeply involved in programming anyway, was searching for a challenge that ABC seemed unable to offer him.
Problem sharing power
It’s not been well-known outside the company, but Mr. Bornstein has remained very much connected to ESPN. The sports programmer did no major deals without a consult with Mr. Bornstein. His departure should elevate the confidence Disney executives have in ESPN President George Bodenheimer to run their most precious asset.
There is one thing all sides can probably agree on: Given Mr. Bornstein’s take-charge personality and the legendary reluctance of Mr. Eisner to share power-“At the end of the day, even Bob [Iger] can’t greenlight a project,” said one source who has witnessed the machinations up close-Mr. Bornstein shouldn’t have been offered the ABC Television presidency and he shouldn’t have taken it.
The Bornstein departure takes place as Disney and ABC executives gather on the Disney campus in Burbank, Calif., to screen the results of the development process in which Mr. Eisner and Mr. Iger have been involved from the get-go and which Ms. Lyne joined as scripts, ordered mostly from in-house Touchstone Television before Mr. Bloomberg got the boot, were coming in.
The 2002-03 lineup and strategy that will be presented to advertisers May 14 will be the most scrutinized, parsed and second-guessed of the upfront week.
The prevailing industry wisdom is that Mr. Iger has more to lose than does rookie programmer Ms. Lyne.
“He’s saying it’s his schedule, his team,” said a studio executive. “If he doesn’t get a [successful] schedule, they are all out of jobs. ABC paid a fortune for this schedule. It’s all their money. This schedule has got to work.”
Long-suffering affiliates have been waiting all season for just such a schedule. Instead, they’ve seen their late-news lead-ins rack up double-digit declines. In some markets, ABC’s prime-time performance is down as much as 50 percent to 60 percent year to year. When ABC threw in the programming towel against NBC’s coverage of the Winter Olympics in February, affiliates were assured the good stuff was being saved for the May sweeps.
Aside from the much-anticipated “Dinotopia” miniseries that begins its three-part run Sunday, May 12, the schedule is larded with theatricals (“Con Air,” for one) that have been seen often before or will be seen twice during sweeps. (“Notting Hill” airs Monday and again Saturday; “The Sixth Sense” aired last Thursday and again last Saturday.)
“I just can’t understand what ABC is doing,” said one glum affiliate sales executive.
Beyond the upfront, there’s the question of how Mr. Bornstein’s absence will affect the strained relationship between the network and the affiliates.
Andy Fisher, the president of powerful Cox Television and former chairman of the ABC affiliates board, who has worked with a number of ABC Television presidents, found Mr. Bornstein to be a “world-class executive.”
“ABC and its affiliates both lose something with [Mr. Bornstein’s] departure,” said Mr. Fisher.
The network and affiliates had only begun, with the presence of Mr. Bornstein, having “constructive” talks about renewing the expiring three-year deal under which the affiliate body kicked in $45 million a year toward ABC’s football costs in return for eight prime-time ad spots per week, protection against losing additional inventory, cuts in compensation and limits on repurposing of network programming.
With the overall affiliate agreement inextricably entwined with the football agreement-“You are not going to settle one without the other” has been the affiliates’ message to the network-a replay of the rancorous negotiations of 1999 seems likely.
Presumably, the affiliates will be negotiating with Mr. Wallau, who will share management of the network with Mr. Iger, who is expected to also supervise Family Channel President Angela Shapiro’s programming efforts.
ABC is billing Mr. Bornstein’s departure as a call for reorganization.
Increasingly, the question being asked is whether reorganization should start at the very top, with Mr. Eisner and Mr. Iger.