ABC Shuffles Shrugged Off

Apr 12, 2004  •  Post A Comment

Just six weeks before ABC’s upfront in New York, no one is certain who will be onstage presenting the new fall schedule to advertisers.
With ABC Entertainment Group Chairman Lloyd Braun out the door, uncertainty in the upper management ranks at the network was palpable last week as each day brought a new headline and a new rumor.
Despite the perceived chaos, advertisers and producers vying for a spot on ABC’s schedule don’t seem to think it makes a big difference who is heading up the division.
“It doesn’t affect us at all because it’s ABC,” said one executive producer of an ABC pilot, “and everyone knows that the only two people who have a voice at ABC to make any decisions are [Walt Disney Co. CEO] Michael Eisner and [Walt Disney Co. President] Bob Iger. It ain’t getting on unless Michael and Bob get the show and believe in it. That’s the name of the game at that network. That hasn’t changed.”
That’s not necessarily a good thing. Disney and ABC need to make changes at the top, say Hollywood insiders, who complain that the network’s structure is too confusing and too conservative, and that Disney executives meddle too much, all of which are reasons ABC has been mired in fourth place the past few years.
While ABC’s top entertainment executives Mr. Braun and Entertainment President Susan Lyne take project pitches and champion certain projects throughout development season, it’s no secret they don’t have the unilateral power to make decisions that Jeff Zucker has at NBC or Leslie Moonves has at CBS.

Mr. Eisner and Mr. Iger-who both rose through the television side of Disney-are very hands-on at the network and have the ultimate say about which shows make it on the air and where they are scheduled. The problem, agents and producers say, is that they aren’t the ones who are listening to pitches and buying projects in the first place. So some projects the entertainment division is gung-ho about get far down the pipeline only to be nixed by Mr. Eisner or Mr. Iger in the end.
“If you’ve done it [run a TV division] before as Iger and Eisner have, it’s natural they would have a more than passing interest,” said Bill Carroll, VP and director of national programming for Katz Television Group, a New York sales rep firm. “Most times it is perceived to be a plus to have somebody who has had that experience in the past. But what’s the fine line between advice and meddling?”
“As long as it becomes easier for people to make decisions, it will be easier to rebuild the network,” said one industry veteran.

Whether that happens remains to be seen. ABC’s management structure was still up in the air at the end of last week. Mr. Braun has already left the network, according to several sources. Ms. Lyne is still forging ahead in charge of development. A deal is in the works for ABC Cable Networks chief Anne Sweeney to gain oversight of the ABC broadcast network in addition to her cable responsibilities. Whether she would hire another executive to work with Ms. Lyne or give Ms. Lyne greater responsibilities is unclear. ESPN’s top programmer Mark Shapiro was in negotiations last week for a high-level development position at ABC, but talks have cooled because he was insisting on a position equal to Ms. Lyne’s, sources said.
Then there’s ABC Network President Alex Wallau, who could be the odd man out if Ms. Sweeney is put in charge of ABC. However, with Mr. Wallau’s close ties to Mr. Iger, he could end up in another position, sources said. ABC’s structure is expected to be sorted out by the time top Disney executives meet for a scheduled retreat at the end of this month. ABC declined comment.
Even when the executive structure has been stable, the various Disney TV divisions haven’t been known to play particularly well together.
“It’s a very dysfunctional family. None of the divisions really support each other in a meaningful way, like you see at NBC, Bravo and NBC News,” one reality producer said. “It’s not like NBC running a show during summer that is a launch pad to run on Bravo. ABC should be doing this, starting something on ABC for two or three months, then move it to ABC Family. It’s that kind of building the brand’s cross-platform that just doesn’t exist with the network.”
Merely shuffling Disney executives may not be enough to institute real change. “If they were to bring someone from the outside in at this point in the process, it might be a good thing,” Mr. Carroll said. “It might bring a new set of eyes, some new ideas and at least another look at some of the options they have near term and how they can be exploited.
“In the end the evaluation of how this all plays out will be (a) who they put in charge and (b) how successful they are in crafting a schedule that presumes success and presumes moving forward as opposed to at best status quo.”
Advertisers Not Rattled
Some members of the creative community, who criticize Disney for clinging too tightly to its squeaky-clean corporate brand, said building a better schedule will depend on taking more chances with content.
“Disney has a self-policing issue. They are afraid to do anything that might infringe on the Disney brand or what is perceived as the Disney brand,” the reality producer said. “Is `Queer Eye for the Straight Guy’ a salacious show? No, it’s fun, positive, helps people, it’s wish fulfillment. But you wouldn’t find it on ABC Family, or ABC for that matter, because they are so afraid of going off-center or left, they’re always center or right.
“For whatever reason, at the end of the day it just seems to get watered down at ABC,” the producer added. “Look at the slate last year-really, really conservative. … Maybe it comes from Eisner. I don’t know.”
The ABC Network did expose a little leg last week, however, revealing that it had partnered on a new reality show called “The Two-Timer,” from Mike Fleiss’s Telepictures-based Next Entertainment, the producer of “The Bachelor.” It follows the exploits of a man who habitually dates several women at a time.
Even with the upfront near, media agency executives aren’t concerned that a management change will affect their upfront advertising sales position-realizing that many development decisions are already in place for the fall.
They also recognize that network management changes can occur at this time of year-especially at ABC. Two years ago, ABC let go of chief programming executive Stu Bloomberg in the spring and brought in Ms. Lyne right before the May 2002 upfront presentations.
“It’s not the first time they have gone into the upfront with a change in management,” said Donna Wolfe, executive VP and director of national broadcast for Universal McCann. “Advertisers just want the best programming on the air-regardless about who is in charge of development.”
Several executive producers of current pilots say they haven’t felt any of the management turmoil because their pilots were already in the works and the development executives they work with on a daily basis-namely Senior VP of Comedy Stephanie Leifer and VPs of Drama Heather Kadin and Julie McNamara-are still there.
Ms. Kadin and Ms. McNamara are running the drama department at ABC since Senior VP of Drama Thom Sherman left to head up J.J. Abrams’ production company. ABC has had trouble filling the position, with at least two people turning down the job, sources said.
It’s not as if there is a huge change in trend as for what they are looking for,” said another pilot producer. “I haven’t experienced anything but harmony over there despite what’s going on.”
One reality producer said the turmoil hasn’t filtered down the ranks. “It seems to me that in our particular arena, with [VP of Alternative Development] Andrea Wong, it’s business as usual,” he said.
While some pilots in development that Mr. Braun championed might suffer with his departure, at least one industry insider was not concerned about projects getting lost in the executive shuffle.
“You still pick the best projects, which will go the distance,” the insider said. “You pitch ABC because it is sti
ll a broadcast network. Hedging about it is a mistake. It’s one hit away from being CBS.”
Double-Edged Sword
Developing projects at ABC is a double-edged sword. The network may be ratings-challenged and have a lot of executive turmoil, but it also has a lot of prime real estate available.
ABC is in fourth place so far this season in its target demographic of adults 18 to 49 with a 3.4 rating and 9 share, trailing Fox and CBS-which are tied for second-by 15 percent. ABC is down 13 percent year to year in the demo. That’s a steeper decline than at any other network except The WB.
The only shows ABC has in the top 30 among adults 18 to 49 are “The Bachelor” and “The Bachelorette,” which are down 16 percent and 33 percent year to year, respectively. Comparing that with the other Big 4 nets, NBC has four shows in the top 10 and CBS and Fox each have three. ABC hasn’t been able to launch a single successful drama in the past two years.
“Right now if you had an hour at CBS, despite the fact that there’s unbelievably consistent management and a clear point of view as to what they want and where they are going, the fact of the matter is they don’t need much product,” said the ABC pilot executive producer. “At best you’re going to see one new hour of television get on in addition to `CSI: New York,’ so what’s the point? Our choice was to go where there was a need. That hasn’t changed.” n
Wayne Friedman, Melissa Grego and James Hibberd contributed to this report.