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Power of three for ABC

May 13, 2002  •  Post A Comment

ABC is getting ready for its makeover, and it couldn’t come soon enough for ad buyers.
After suffering through a two-year ratings dive, ABC will present its fall schedule to buyers this week in New York, and new Entertainment President Susan Lyne will take center stage.
“ABC strategically is refocusing on what made them a multigenerational destination, but it really looks like Susan is injecting some of her creative instincts for shows in development that are far beyond doing cookie-cutter family shows,” said John Rash, executive VP of national broadcast for Campbell Mithun.
Listening to the audience
While a focus on family-oriented series has been the early word from the network, Ms. Lyne has also been pressing the flesh in small, informal New York meetings with advertisers to sell them on ABC’s “returning to its roots” by offering broad point-of-view sitcoms-in the vein of “Roseanne” and “Grace Under Fire”-to build on its onetime core of adults 18 to 49.
“One of the things I kept hearing from people about what they loved-`Roseanne,’ `Grace Under Fire’ and `Home Improvement’-were the ABC comedies that used to really allow people to laugh at their own lives and their families,” Ms. Lyne said. “They were shows that reflected the way their audience lived, the kind of issues they were dealing with, and yet in a way that made it all entertaining. And I think that you don’t see a lot of that anymore on television. There is still a market for it, which is one of the reasons `A Few Simple Rules’ and Bonnie Hunt [“Bonnie in the Morning”] are obviously appealing shows for us to work with. There is that moment of recognition in each of them where you say, `Now that looks like my life.”’
That notion is driving Ms. Lyne as she, while working closely with ABC Entertainment Television Group Chairman Lloyd Braun, shepherds her first program development slate, which consists of a network-high 29 series (16 sitcoms, 13 dramas). For the first time since network production was absorbed in 1999 within the restarted Touchstone Television unit, headed by Stephen McPherson, Mr. Braun has simultaneously ramped up the studio’s production to 26 series-25 of which make up ABC’s pilot slate.
“The other media conglomerates like Fox, Viacom and AOL Time Warner still have separate divisions, which can often lead to conflicting agendas, but what we have shown is that we can have one shared infrastructure working together,” Mr. Braun said. “So we’re accomplishing this high level of production with far fewer people, because there are clear lines of communication in terms of the what the network is looking for and needs to get ABC back on track.”
Family hour revisited
Clearly what ABC needs are self-starting comedies, whether it comes from Touchstone or an outside supplier-since Wednesday’s “My Wife and Kids” and “According to Jim” offer the only stable 8 p.m.-to-9 p.m. springboard on ABC’s prime-time lineup. This season, ABC is expected to remain mired in a fourth-place position among adults 18 to 49, with its 3.6 rating/10 share average in the key demo down 20 percent from its comparable year-ago level (4.5/12) among regularly-scheduled programming. Much of the damage is due to the ill-made decision to rely on a fading “Who Wants to Be a Millionaire” four times a week last year, which led to stunted series development.
This year, Ms. Lyne and Mr. Braun are expected to order at least eight sitcoms and possibly more than 10, including midseason backups. Ms. Lyne is looking to strike a balance between such broad series as the teen-dating entry “A Few Simple Rules,” the brand-recognizable “Legally Blonde” and Ms. Hunt’s harried working-mom sitcom with such adult-oriented comedies as Terri Minsky’s workplace comedy “Less Than Perfect” and Michael Jacobs’ untitled estranged-family comedy.
Ad buyers have still been speculating that ABC is bringing back the 8 p.m.-to-9 p.m. “family hour” of the pre-1970s on all five evenings of its weeknight lineup, but Ms. Lyne stressed ABC is still returning to its “footprint” with thought-provoking, issue-oriented comedies.
“Family comedy is not the way I would position it,” Ms. Lyne said. “Although family comedies are part of that mix, we are certainly looking at aggressively programming the 8 to 9 o’clock hour Monday through Friday with shows that are primarily targeted at our core adults 18 to 49 audience but that are entertaining for teen-agers and kids, too, and are totally appropriate for them.
“I only hesitate to use the word `family’ because there is a lot of negative connotations to it as well as positive connotations to it. It somehow means it is going to be `safe’ programming or `old-fashioned’ programming, but these [shows in development] are anything but.”
Eye-opening experience
Given Ms. Lyne’s background in dramatic long-form programming, there are still media watchers who are wondering what kind of instincts she brings to the comedy development process.
“From what I’ve seen of Susan’s creative notes, she’s very direct to the point and will tell you what she does or doesn’t like right away, which is so critical in every stage of the development process,” said a competing studio’s comedy development executive, who requested anonymity. “It almost seems as if her background in the New York literary community as well as experience in Broadway-style musicals like `Annie’ and `South Pacific’ has really equipped her with strong creative instincts for what works in terms of pacing and comic irony.”
Ms. Lyne said immersing herself in the comedy development process has also helped her gain new insights.
“As a person who does not come out of comedy, just going through the process of doing these comedies has been an eye-opening experience, because so much of the work gets done between that first table read and the taping,” Ms. Lyne said. “It is unbelievably useful to have to perform in front of a group of people, because you see what works and what falls flat. Even in run-throughs, you have 30 or 40 people around and you’ve got an audience there, and you know whether something is working there. You just don’t have that with single-camera comedies.
“Single-camera comedies are really tough to pull off. If you look at the entire network universe, how many single-camera comedies are there that can be truly called hits? Maybe [Fox’s] `Malcolm’ and [NBC’s] `Scrubs,”’ the latter of which is produced by ABC/Disney’s Touchstone Television unit.
That opinion may not bode well for Peter Tolan’s acclaimed but little viewed “The Job,” which she conceded is “on the bubble” for next season’s schedule.
Although many of the pilots in development came from scripts commissioned by Mr. Braun and Stu Bloomberg, who was forced to resign as Entertainment co-chairman last February, Ms Lyne has quickly tapped her own creative contacts in Hollywood and New York to establish startup projects with her own imprint. Just last week she finalized a deal with “Law & Order” creator and producer Dick Wolf to create a “contemporized” series revival of the cop classic “Dragnet” for ABC in early 2003.
The pricey 13-epsiode deal for “Dragnet” was said by sources to have prompted NBC-Mr. Wolf’s longtime network collaborator-to make a counterbid.
“This is something I had talked with Susan about doing literally a week after she took the job,” Mr. Wolf said. “What is great about Susan is [she] brings a sensibility and a world that hasn’t been as traveled for writer-producers, bringing in a fresh eye and gut instincts that are refreshing to this consolidated business. In a lot of ways, what I see in Susan is what I remember of [the late NBC programming chief] Brandon Tartikoff-people who are primarily driven by their gut [and] not entirely by marketing surveys, research and rating numbers.”
Mr. Wolf also cited Ms. Lyne’s “strong acumen” for scheduling and promoting dramatic long-form projects as one of the leading reasons why he pushed “Dragnet” over to ABC. A senior-level talent agency source with close ties to ABC said Mr. Wolf and Ms. Lyne
have also been collaborating on another drama series project “outside of the realm of law enforcement.” Mr. Wolf and Universal Television officials declined to comment other than to say there is no second series deal being negotiated.
Big push into dramas
In the meantime, ABC officials have expressed high hopes on possibly picking up nine or more dramas for fall 2002 or early 2003 midseason runs. Ms. Lyne and Mr. Braun, already coming to grips with the cancellation of “Once and Again” and with Steven Bochco’s “Philly” riding the bubble, have been carefully grooming what are shaping up to be two separate groups of “all-family” and “adult-oriented” dramas for next season.
On the “light-action,” family side of the ledger, both ABC executives are hot on the prospects for “The Chang Family Saves the Universe,” “Nancy Drew,” “Paranormal Girl,” “Veritas” and “Astronauts”-any of which Ms. Lyne said could play in time slots between 8 p.m. and 11 p.m. Among the more adult-themed dramas, which Ms. Lyne sees being slotted in either the 9 p.m. or 10 p.m. hours, are the Washington drama “Capitol City,” Larry Gelbart’s family soap “The Corsairs,” the anti-HMO medical series “The Oath” and the interactive mystery series “Push, Nevada.”
Ms. Lyne spoke most glowingly about the drama “That Was Then.” Starring James Bulliard as a 30-year-old man who gets to go back in time to high school in an effort to right some wrongs, “That Was Then” sounds like the male counterpoint to the movie “Peggy Sue Got Married.”
“We loved `That Was Then.’ It’s a totally fun show and as well-cast as anything I’ve ever been involved with in years,” Ms. Lyne said. “What will appeal to teens and kids just as much as adults [will be] to see James’ character and his friends going back in time to the early 1980s-we see them in their awkward teen years but [with] adult sensibilities to their personalities.”
By expressing an interest in putting “That Was Then” in a “protected time period,” Ms. Lyne raised speculation among talent agents on a possible 9 p.m.-to-10 p.m. Wednesday slotting coming out of “My Wife and Kids” and “According to Jim” for next fall.
Both Mr. Braun and Ms. Lyne said ABC is going to be aggressive in staggering the launches of some higher-profile sitcoms, dramas and reality-based series. In particular, with ABC taking its turn at the Super Bowl in late January 2003 and the Academy Awards telecast in March 2003, both Ms. Lyne and Mr. Braun see these events as key pre- and post-February sweeps promotion platforms for new series.
The main events
The two executives have also crafted a pipeline of event series, miniseries and telefilms designed to feed ABC’s schedule throughout the course of next season. Mr. Braun is said to already see “Dragnet’s” launching in one of “Monday Night Football’s” 9 p.m. or 10 p.m. hours in late December. And ABC programmers are laying out plans for the midseason 13-episode runs of “Dinotopia” (a miniseries that debuted Sunday), Stephen King’s “The Kingdom” (15 episodes) and the Ben Affleck- and Sean Bailey-penned “Push, Nevada.”
“I think we’ll have an advantage with these being big, splashy self-starters,” Mr. Braun said. “We want to be as aggressive as we can in the fall with our new shows but at the same time be realistic that we can’t expect to fix things all at once.”
Andrew Donchin, a buyer at Carat USA, thinks it’s “not out of the realm of possibility” for ABC to mount a run for second place in the key 18 to 49 demo next season. “Maybe it’s only going to take two or three hits for ABC to get back in the game in the fall. But they’re going to need to build beachheads everywhere, so anything showing traction is going be considered a positive sign for them,” Mr. Donchin said.
Mr. Braun and Ms. Lyne wouldn’t get caught up in venturing to offer any kind of projections or goals on potential for ratings growth for ABC next season. “All we want to do right now is stop the downtrend, change it to momentum in our favor and start heading in the right direction over the long term. Obviously, luck will have to shine on us, too.”