Iger prez of ABC Net Group

Capital Cities/ABC has taken a significant step toward establishing its next generation of management by promoting ABC Entertainment president Robert A. Iger to president of the ABC TV Network Group, succeeding John Sias.

The appointment is effective Jan. 1, and Iger’s first responsibility in the new job–which oversees a broad range of network activities including the news, sports and entertainment divisions as well as sales and affiliate relations– willbe to choose his own successor. Iger wouldn’t comment on a time table or whether the replacement will come from within or outside the network.

The internal candidates are Ted Harbert and Stu Bloomberg, both exec VPs of prime time under Iger. One scenario, deemed unlikely by insiders, would call for structuring a co-presidency between the two, since Bloomberg oversees development while Harbert is principally involved in current programming and scheduling.

Since few believe the position will be shared, most ABC staffers hope Harbert will get the post, since the likely alternative would be an outsider.

Bloomberg is considered a major asset because of his development skills but may be less comfortable with the ceremonial aspects of the top job. He reportedly has a long-term contract that would allow him to segue from ABC into an independent production deal at ABC Prods., should he wish to do so in the wake of a management change.

As for external contenders, the most frequently mentioned names are Lorimar TV president Leslie Moonves, who’s rumored to covet an eventual move to a network; and William Morris Agency TV chief Bob Crestani, who has been discussed but is said to be cool to the idea.

Moonves has a long-term deal at Lorimar, which is the leading supplier of network series and has a particularly strong presence at ABC, with a total of nine series for the network. Because of the numerous Lorimar shows on ABC, one observer noted that Lorimar parent Warner Bros. “would be crazy not to let him out” of his contract if Moonves wanted to jump to the web.

Joseph Ahern, the general manager of ABC-owned station WLS-TV in Chicago, is also said to have been angling for a move to the West Coast, possibly in the entertainment division. Though some dismiss Ahern as an option because of his lack of network experience, his selection would be just slightly more of a shock to the Hollywood community than the relatively unknown Iger was when he was named in March 1989.

Smooth transition

“This will be a smooth transition,” Iger said, noting that in his new capacity he’ll continue to have involvement in the entertainment division.

Speculation that Iger’s return to New York was imminent has been circulating for months, but the move didn’t become official until last week, the exec said, and the announcement was kept quiet until a press conference yesterday. The promotion ends longstanding conjecture that Iger, 41, would eventually replace Sias, who has already worked past the web’s informal retirement-at-65 policy.

Sias has run the network group since CapCities’ acquisition of the web in 1986 and will remain in an advisory capacity with the company. Iger will report directly to CapCities/ABC president-CEO Daniel Burke.

The promotion will put Iger above two former bosses–news division president Roone Arledge (for whom he worked at ABC Sports) and current sports division chief Dennis Swanson–within the company hierarchy. It also establishes him as an eventual contender to replace Burke, whose own targeted retirement date is less than 18 months away.

CapCities/ABC management has been fairly vigilant in observing those dates, which chairman Thomas Murphy established by handing his CEO title over to Burke when he turned 65 in June 1990. Sias, 66, worked on beyond his retirement date at Burke’s request and will continue to be active in the web’s ancillary areas.

ABC has been the most stable of the networks in terms of management over the years because of the Murphy-Burke combination, and it’s possible Burke could work beyond his 65th birthday at the board’s urging. In an interview, Burke called his possible retirement at 65 “a threat I’ve made to my wife,” intimating that his retirement in 1994 is likely but not etched in stone.

Burke added that Iger’s solid performance at the entertainment division cemented the decision to elevate him, as well as the possibility that Iger might be wooed away. “An awful lot of people come out of that (entertainment) job and they’re lying on their shield, not carrying it,” Burke said in lauding Iger.

Although Iger was viewed as an outsider when he came to ABC Entertainment in March 1989, he quickly won over the Hollywood community, and it soon became clear that the company might be grooming him for a higher position down the line.

Talent relations

Among his accomplishments, Iger has maintained strong relationships with top talent, particularly in terms of soothing relations between the network and mercurial star Roseanne Arnold. He also received credit for programming a number of quality dramas like “Twin Peaks” and “China Beach” (developed prior to his tenure) and took heat for canceling those shows as well as “thirtysomething.”

Iger reiterated yesterday that he was never promised a promotion when he came to Los Angeles but that he always expected to stay at the network beyond his entertainment stint, having spent nearly his entire professional career at ABC since beginning as a New York studio supervisor in 1974.

Shortly thereafter, Iger shifted to ABC Sports, where he moved through the ranks, eventually becoming VP of program planning and acquisition. In August 1988, eight months before taking the entertainment post, Iger was named executive VP of the ABC TV Network Group, working as Sias’ deputy. “This is the fulfillment of a dream for me, in many respects,” Iger said.

With the top programming position still vacant at Fox Broadcasting Co., CBS Entertainment chief Jeff Sagansky now has seniority in that regard, having been in his position just short of three years.

Monday’s press conference was initially called to trumpet ABC’s sweeps performance–marking its first victory during a November survey in 14 years–and most staffers were unaware of news regarding Iger’s promotion until yesterday morning. Iger noted that a successor will inherit a “pretty solid schedule,” a”very talented staff” and “an office full of great furniture.”

ABC looks destined to finish a solid second in prime time for the season in households and first among adults 18-49, the primary demographic in the eyes of advertisers. Iger also will now oversee fringe areas such as daytime, children’s programming and late night, which are supervised by Swanson and Phil Beuth, respectively, out of New York instead of the West Coast.

Burke said Iger will continue to spend a lot of time in L.A..

On other matters, Iger acknowledged that ABC made overtures to David Letterman but that the NBC host crossed the web off his list of options due to his resolve to land an 11:30 p.m. slot. ABC remains committed to “Nightline,” Iger said, so Letterman “eliminated us, rather than us eliminating him.”

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