ALPHABET IN DENIAL

Tarses rumors trigger spin control

ABC brass took the unusual but seemingly necessary step of giving ABC Entertainment president Jamie Tarses a public endorsement in an attempt to end speculation of a pending executive shakeup at the network.

There have been rumors over the past several weeks that Disney/ABC Cable Networks president Geraldine Laybourne would move over to the broadcast side of ABC in a senior post that would have oversight over ABC Entertainment. While ABC has steadfastly denied those rumors, that hasn’t stopped an eager press from speculating that such a move was in the works.

ABC president Robert Iger said in a statement Monday that Tarses’ job is not in jeopardy and that the network has “confidence that under Jamie’s leadership we will be able to turn around ABC’s primetime performance.”

As for Laybourne, Iger said, “There is no truth to the rumors that Gerry is assuming a role at ABC Entertainment.” Laybourne said in the statement she has had “no conversations about my assuming a role at ABC Entertainment, and this is not a consideration.”

Squelching rumor mill

Whether the statements will slow the rumor mill remains to be seen. Privately, some ABC execs were wishing that Iger had made such a statement weeks ago to quash the speculation about Tarses instead of waiting to react to pieces in the New York Post and Newsweek.

While such an endorsement was needed, the timing couldn’t be worse. ABC execs are huddling to determine their schedule for the 1997-98 season and the last message the web wants to send to the production community is one of instability. ABC is set to unveil its fall schedule May 19 in New York.

And, although ABC and Iger have now gone out on a limb denying change is pending, industry observers no doubt remember that Disney chairman Michael Eisner and president Michael Ovitz went on CNN’s “Larry King Live” to say their working relationship was fine only weeks before Ovitz left.

And even if Laybourne’s name drops out of the running, others may surface. A longstanding rumor has Disney CEO continuing to woo Marcy Carsey, a partner in the Carsey-Werner Co., to either exit her company and join the network or find a way to enter a business alliance with Disney-ABC. Carsey-Werner has in the past denied such speculation.

Tarses, 33, has been under the magnifying glass since assuming her post in June. Although ABC’s ratings have taken a hit this year, Tarses’ defenders point out that she did not put the schedule on the air. She only assumed complete control of the entertainment arm in February, when Ted Harbert gave up his chairman position to join DreamWorks in a senior production post.

Still, the network has endured its lowest Saturday night ratings and the lowest in Big Three history earlier last month under Tarses’ watch. A special about the band U2 posted dismal single-digit numbers.

Tarses’ supporters counter that the decision to tie ABC’s sweeps promotion and marketing around U2 and to program a concert special of the band even though such specials are ratings disasters came from New York.

Ironically, the heat on Tarses comes at a time when the Alphabet web is doing better than expected in sweeps. While its big miniseries “Stephen King’s The Shining” was not the ratings behemoth the web expected, so far the network is up 26% in adults 18-49 compared with last year’s May sweeps.

ABC also is expected to win last week’s ratings war in households and key demos, a result of the huge numbers the hourlong coming-out episode of “Ellen” pulled in on Wednesday.

But challenges lie ahead for Tarses, who has the task of rebuilding a schedule that is losing staples like “Roseanne” and “Family Matters” after this season and of rejuvenating returning shows such as “Grace Under Fire” and “Home Improvement.” Its only midseason show to leave a mark, the comedy “Soul Man,” was on for only three episodes, and while it did well, that may be too short of a test to determine its long-term viability.

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