ABC again turning to Jackson

Lifted to a November sweeps win in part by the miniseries “The Jacksons: An American Dream,” ABC will go back to the Michael Jackson well in February via a 90-minute live Oprah Winfrey interview with the reclusive singer, to air Feb. 10 following “Home Improvement.”

That was the only real hard news to come out of the web’s portion of the TV critics tour yesterday, as newly promoted ABC TV Network Group prez Robert Iger and entertainment topper Ted Harbert met reporters in separate 45-minute question-and-answer sessions.

Iger, defending ABC’s planned staff reduction through an employee buyout offer, called network TV “a mature business” that can be successful but that can’t count on future ratings or revenue growth. He cautioned, however, against the temptation to pursue draconian cuts, saying that a network “can’t save itself into profitability” but rather “has to program itself into profitability.”

Harbert and Iger drew several questions about the TV movie form –spurred in part by the recent three-way Amy Fisher festival–as well as the web’s ability to say “no”to Roseanne and Tom Arnold, who were given the post-“Roseanne” slot for new sitcom “The Jackie Thomas Show.”

Regarding Tom Arnold’s recent inference that Roseanne might withhold her services if ABC cancelled “Jackie Thomas,” Iger said he couldn’t see that happening, adding there was nothing wrong with taking “Roseanne’s” success into account in scheduling its star’s new series behind the hit.

Still, Iger added that ABC had never contractually guaranteed a time period to a show, that ABC would cancel “Jackie Thomas” if it felt it had to, and “in the end, we are not going to turn our schedule over to the pressures and the whims and desires” of performers.

During a press conference that followed, Tom Arnold said the notion of Roseanne leaving her show if “Jackie” got the hook was “ridiculous.” Roseanne Arnold at-tended the event but did not take part in the Q&A.

Turning to ABC’s general failure with one-hour dramas, Harbert suggested that news magazines are now supplying the audience’s “drama fix” and have made it harder to launch hours.

Iger said ABC is developing an ambitious roster of dramas and cited the need for balance to prevent news saturation in prime time; however, he also quipped that he was “suddenly more objective” about additional news magazines since matriculating to his new post.

ABC will add its third regular news hour, “Day One,” in March, when it also plans to premiere in-house drama “Sirens” and bring back “The Young Indiana Jones Chronicles,” probably on Saturdays. Five remaining episodes of “Life Goes On” will air into March, and though it’s a long shot to continue, Harbert wouldn’t sound an official finale on that Warner Bros. series.

Harbert added that ABC began screening the best episode of borderline current series last year during scheduling time, along with new series pilots, and would again use that approach this spring.

As for TV movies, Iger said he wasn’t embarrassed by his network’s involvement in the Amy Fisher derby but that he did object to paying rights fees to perpetrators or alleged criminals.

ABC’s version of the Fisher story was based on public domain, whereas NBC purchased rights from Fisher, among others, and CBS had a deal with the victim in the case, Mary Jo Buttafuoco.

Iger cited better marketing the network as one of his priorities in the new job (which oversees sales and affiliate relations as well as entertainment, news and sports) and said ABC would consider another late night program after “Nightline” depending on how NBC’s Leno-Letterman dilemma played out.

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