Finding a prince for ABC network

Dec 2, 2002  •  Post A Comment

When Steve Bornstein abruptly resigned as ABC Television president last May, a lot of people in TV circles had the impression that he would not be replaced.
A lot of people were wrong.
Beleaguered parent The Walt Disney Co. does intend to fill what is known colloquially as “the Bornstein position,” which would most likely be reshaped to fit Disney Chairman and CEO Michael Eisner’s plans to restructure the TV properties to integrate horizontally across platforms rather than by more traditional vertical reporting lines.
Sources familiar with the situation-which has developed so quietly that none of the usual suspects have had a chance to float their names as being on the short list-said there is no short list of candidates and that no headhunter has been hired.
But Electronic Media has learned that conversations have been held with people Disney considers suitable candidates. At least two people were approached before Mr. Eisner’s recent anointing of Disney President Bob Iger as the executive he would like to see succeed him should the need arise.
One source familiar with Mr. Eisner and Mr. Iger’s long-term plans said that from the day Disney announced Mr. Bornstein was leaving, when the position was filled it would be as part of a reconfiguration.
The responsibilities of the potential new hire are not clear. One source said they would include overall accountability for the TV network, stations, radio and syndication (Buena Vista Television Distribution). This source said that Alex Wallau, president of the ABC Televison Network-a title so similar to Mr. Bornstein’s former title that even some network insiders had to check official bios before explaining who reported to whom at the network-would then likely move inside Disney to work even more closely with Mr. Iger. Mr. Iger and Mr. Wallau have been colleagues since their days at ABC Sports in the late ’70s.
However, another source claimed that if a new hire were made to fill “the Bornstein position,” Mr. Wallau would continue as in his present post, and that the new hire’s responsibilities would be aligned more closely to the reorganization Mr. Eisner has talked about. In that reorganization SoapNet and ABC Daytime, ABC Sports and ESPN, and ABC Entertainment and ABC Family Channel get more closely aligned on the management chart. The overall plan is to cut down on the impression of overlap and heaviness at the top of the network.
This source said there is a need to reduce the number of people who report directly to Mr. Iger because he needs to be free to think big and travel more regularly to Hong Kong, where Disney plans to open a theme park in 2005, and to Shanghai, where Disney envisions another theme park opening three years later.
This same source vigorously refutes any suggestion that Mr. Iger’s motives for making a Bornstein-level hire might include the desire to have someone on whom to pin blame if ABC, which tumbled from first to fourth place among its target 18 to 49 audience during the 2000-01 season, does not continue to outperform many expectations this season as it rebuilds mostly with successful new comedies and “The Bachelor.”
The source argues that if ABC’s momentum slows this season, Mr. Iger will be among those held accountable by shareholders and key Disney board members who have become increasingly frustrated and vocal about Disney stock prices. Disney has recently made itself more accessible in hopes that the press and financial analysts will stop writing off the Magic Kingdom’s rulers as micromanagers who make it difficult for independent thinkers to thrive.
In TV circles in Hollywood and far beyond, many still think that Mr. Bornstein-who grew ESPN into a powerful and profitable brand over some 20 years with the sports network, and who grew himself as a take-charge, entrepreneurial executive-was sapped by his last three years on a Disney merry-go-round. In 1999, he spent several months as president of ABC Television before being dispatched to Go.com on a futile 18-month attempt to prevent the demise of that Eisner pet Internet project. He returned to ABC as president of the network, only to have the bottom drop out of ABC’s overused hit “Who Wants to Be a Millionaire” as well as the economy.
Some executives have said it will be hard to find someone outside the network circle who would be both qualified and willing to risk a reputation on a job that had chewed up an executive such as Mr. Bornstein, once regarded as a jewel in the company’s executive crown.
However, the source who said Mr. Wallau will stay in his present post regardless of a new hire dismissed such speculation as false, mean-spirited and off-base. This source said Mr. Eisner and Mr. Iger will take their time looking for the new executive, making sure the new executive’s foot will fit their executive glass slipper.
“There is no real urgency,” the source said.