A Player in Prime Time

May 19, 2003  •  Post A Comment

ABC’s “50th Anniversary” is really a misnomer. Its prime-time programming dates back more than a half-century. The company began producing programs in 1946, piecing together an ad-hoc network of independent stations for shows such as Play the Game (1946) and On the Corner (1948).
By May 1948 ABC had assembled a small group of affiliated stations in major markets to carry its regular network lineup. The Lone Ranger (1949) and The Adventures of Ozzie & Harriet (1952) were among the network’s first hits.
Formed in 1943 as the result of a government-mandated breakup of NBC, the American Broadcasting Company struggled from the beginning. It was not until theater magnate Leonard Goldenson merged his United Paramount Theaters with fledgling ABC in 1953 that the company had solid enough financial support to try to compete.
“Many people discouraged me. Our own board was quite doubtful that we could ever become a competitive force,” Mr. Goldenson said in a 1977 interview.
The ’50s: If You Can’t Join ‘Em, Beat ‘Em
In its early days ABC had no Hope-nor Berle, Murrow or Godfrey for that matter. Mr. Goldenson recognized that if his new network was to climb out of the cellar, it would have to do something different. Without big stars and their big drawing power, Mr. Goldenson chose broadcasting’s equivalent of guerrilla warfare-counterprogramming.
His first coup came in 1954, when venerable movie producer Walt Disney was seeking investors for his proposed theme park. Mr. Goldenson and Mr. Disney struck a unique deal that kick-started ABC’s ascension.
“All ABC had was Ozzie & Harriet,” Mr. Goldenson said in 1987. “My position was that we had to bring Hollywood into television.”
In return for ABC’s investment in what would become the Disneyland theme park, the Disney company would develop programming for ABC. Disneyland, a mix of cartoons, live-action adventures, documentaries and nature stories, premiered on ABC in October 1954. The show rose to No. 4 in the ratings its first season, a stunning achievement for upstart ABC.
“The studios had been holdouts, and they had fought television, so the Disney deal really opened the door to enormous changes,” said Tim Brooks, a television historian and senior VP of research at Lifetime Television. (The Walt Disney Co., which owns ABC, is a part owner of Lifetime.)
Continuing his “against the grain” philosophy, Mr. Goldenson persuaded his friend Jack Warner to establish a television production division. Warner Bros. provided ABC with westerns Cheyenne (1955) and Sugarfoot (1957) and detective shows 77 Sunset Strip (1958) and Hawaiian Eye (1959). ABC also tapped producer Robert Sisk for The Life and Legend of Wyatt Earp (1955) and Arnold Laven for The Rifleman (1958).
While CBS and NBC dominated ratings with programs aimed at the mass audience, ABC experimented with shows aimed at younger viewers. Bachelor Father (1957) and American Bandstand featured young characters and performers. American Bandstand made a brief prime-time run in the fall of 1957 before becoming a staple of ABC’s Saturday afternoon schedule. ABC was prescient in its decision to program to a specific demographic group, which is a common practice today.
“ABC came up with these cool, hip shows that brought in a lot of younger viewers, and they really played this up to advertisers that they were the alternative to the old-line networks,” Mr. Brooks said.
The ’60s: A QM Production

Desilu Productions produced The Untouchables, its first dramatic series, for ABC in 1959. Critics denounced The Untouchables for glorifying violence and crime, but the show was a hit with viewers and helped build the reputation of a young producer named Quinn Martin.
Mr. Martin went on to develop a number of successful programs for ABC, including 12 O’Clock High (1964), The F.B.I. (1965) and The Invaders (1967). Each featured a highly stylized format with a stentorian narrator proclaiming the program as “a Quinn Martin Production.”
The biggest QM hit of all, and ABC’s biggest to that time, The Fugitive, premiered in 1963. The series enticed viewers for four seasons, culminating in an August 1967 finale that attracted the largest television audience to date: Some 26 million viewers, representing 46 percent of all U.S. television households.
ABC continued to take risks in the early 1960s. In 1960 the network offered The Flintstones, the first prime-time animated series to click with viewers. Two of ABC’s most successful sitcoms began long runs during that era. My Three Sons premiered in 1960 and ran for five seasons before moving to CBS. Bewitched anchored ABC’s Thursday night lineup from 1964 until 1972, and became one of the network’s longest-running success stories.
ABC accelerated its attempts to draw young viewers in the mid-1960s with the newfangled Batman. The show was an immediate hit when it first appeared in 1966 and featured a new twist on program promotion: cliffhangers. Each Tuesday’s episode invariably left the Caped Crusader in a precarious situation that would be solved the following night, inciting the audience to return.
Other youth-focused shows of the era included The Patty Duke Show (1963), The Flying Nun (1967) and The Mod Squad (1968), one of the many ABC hits produced by Aaron Spelling.
Those ’70s Shows: The Pierce/Silverman Era
As the decade changed, ABC found itself faced with new challenges. Television was changing and its young audience was becoming disenfranchised with the Vietnam War and social conditions.
Though highlighted by a few popular programs such as The Odd Couple (1970) and Monday Night Football (1970), ABC’s early magic was running out as it fell further behind its rivals. The 1974-75 season was the network’s nadir, when it dropped nearly 4 rating points behind second-place NBC.
In 1974, Mr. Goldenson tapped Frederick Pierce to be president of ABC-TV. A veteran ABC employee, Mr. Pierce started in the network’s research department in 1956 and worked his way to the top.
Mr. Pierce fostered development of a whole new genre of youth-oriented sitcoms, such as Happy Days in 1974 and Welcome Back, Kotter a year later. He also hired a new programming chief, Fred Silverman, who would be credited with putting ABC-TV firmly on the map. Perhaps a little too much credit, Mr. Pierce intimated.
“The Silverman era, like so much else in media, gets a little too much hype,” Mr. Pierce said. “Between 1974 and 1984 ABC had about 30 hit series that ran five years or more, and a lot of people had a hand in those.”
Mr. Silverman, who had written his master’s thesis on ABC, was a wizard at scheduling and synergy. While ABC had produced some hit shows, it had never been able to parlay them into a blockbuster lineup. Mr. Silverman built Thursday nights around Happy Days, adding Laverne & Shirley (1976) and Three’s Company (1977) to the mix.
Known as “The Man With the Golden Gut,” he stunned critics and competitors alike by launching racy comedies such as Charlie’s Angels (1976) and Taxi (1978).
As it was in the 1950s ABC was successful in attracting younger viewers, particularly the 18 to 49 demographic now coveted by advertisers. The network reaped the financial benefit. For the 1978-79 season, ABC had become the first television network to exceed $1 billion in revenue.
Mr. Silverman also shepherded another ABC innovation, the epic miniseries, such as Rich Man, Poor Man” (1976) and Roots (1977).
ABC launched two prime-time news initiatives during the era. Neither was an immediate success. Barbara Walters, who cial” telecasts in December 1976. The premiere show, featuring President-elect Jimmy Carter, finished a miserable 63rd out of 68 shows for the week.
In June 1978 ABC added its first prime-time newsmagazine, 20/20. The inaugural show finished second in its time period but was panned by critics, including TelevisionWeek’s Tom Shales, who, writing in The Washington Post, called it “the trashiest stab at candy-cane journalism.” Within days, ABC News President Roone Arledge had replaced co-hosts Harold Hayes and Rob
ert Hughes with TV veteran Hugh Downs. ABC stuck by the concept, but 15 years passed before 20/20 became a regular among the 20 top-rated shows.
The 1977-78 season marked the first time ever that ABC topped the Nielsen ratings. The network placed 10 shows among the season’s top 20, including the four highest-rated series (Laverne & Shirley, Happy Days, Three’s Company and Charlie’s Angels).
“Everything was hitting on all cylinders: prime-time series, movies, novels for television, sports in prime time. It all came together at that point in time,” Mr. Pierce recalled.
ABC remained on top for two more seasons, landing 14 of the top 20 programs in 1978-79. Trouble was brewing, however. Mr. Silverman departed in 1978, lured away by NBC.
The ’80s: The Dynasty Years
With Mr. Silverman gone, Mr. Goldenson semi-retired and CBS and NBC pouring on the heat, ABC’s prime-time lineup began a slow downward trend. Despite a few hit shows-Dynasty (1981), Moonlighting (1985), The A-Team (1983) and Who’s the Boss? (1984), among others-ABC’s ratings flagged during the 1980s.
By 1985, the year Mr. Goldenson celebrated his 80th birthday, ABC was for sale. Less than a year later, the company merged with Capital Cities Communications in a $3.5 billion transaction.
ABC’s second stab at a prime-time newsmagazine came in 1989 with the debut of PrimeTime Live, with Sam Donaldson and Diane Sawyer. The first broadcast pulled a 10 share (percentage of households)-a pretty good number by today’s standards-but finished last in its time slot. ABC executives tweaked the show over time, and by 1993 it cracked the top 20 on a regular basis.
The ’90s: Who Wants to Be No. 1?
Under Cap Cities ownership, the network assembled a formidable Tuesday lineup in the early 1990s, anchored by Roseanne, Home Improvement and Full House. ABC finished No. 1 for the 1994-95 season, but schedulers were generally unable to re-create that Tuesday magic on other nights.
The Disney synergy that had jump-started ABC’s programming success in the 1950s was rekindled 40 years later when the Walt Disney Co. bought Capital Cities/ABC in 1995 for $19 billion. At the time the deal was the largest media marriage in U.S. history, and the second-biggest corporate merger.
The Disney magic hasn’t worked. Except for a brief fling in 1999 with Who Wants To Be a Millionaire, ABC programming has been unable to gain much traction. Factoring out Millionaire and Monday Night Football, only three ABC shows-The Practice, NYPD Blue and Dharma & Greg-finished the 2000-01 season among the top 20.
ABC rode the Millionaire phenomenon too long. When the show faded rapidly in 2001, the network was not ready with a viable replacement.
In 2002 ABC finished an embarrassing fourth among adults 18 to 49, a key demographic group for media buyers. For the first 31 weeks of the current season (through April 27), the network has shown some growth, but only two regularly scheduled series, NYPD Blue and 8 Simple Rules-ranked among the top 50 programs year-to-date.
What will it take to move ABC back to the top?
“Consistency and patience in their programming,” Mr. Pierce said.