ABC ditches half its lineup, pitches family

NEW YORK — ABC Entertainment took steps to remake its ailing primetime schedule, shelving more than a third of its lineup to add five new dramas, five sitcoms, a new Disney movie franchise and a second weekly hour of longrunning newsmag “20/20.”

All told, the Alphabet web is adding 10-1/2 hours of new programs, nearly half its entire primetime schedule, and will return just four freshmen series: “Spin City” and “Sabrina, the Teenage Witch,” leading off the Wednesday and Friday schedules, respectively, and midseason entries “Soul Man” and “The Practice.” (By contrast, top-rated NBC replaced six hours, filling them with a half-dozen sitcoms, two dramas and a fourth “Dateline.”)

The retooling is meant to convey the Alphabet web’s seriousness about improving its lagging performance. And Jamie Tarses, who nervously unveiled her first new slate as ABC’s programming chief at Radio City Music Hall before an audience of skeptical advertisers, said she was “faced with several challenges, first and foremost being the repositioning and rebranding” of the network, also evident in an irreverent new promo campaign unveiled Monday (Daily Variety, May 19).

Once identified strongly as the “family” network, anchored by 8 p.m. series like “Home Improvement,” “Roseanne” and even “Family Matters,” ABC has lost its way, buyers said, losing some franchise series, moving others to more profitable 9 p.m. time periods and making it difficult to launch nights.

Earlier this spring, ABC indicated plans to pursue a seemingly schizophrenic identity, sticking to family shows while also aiming for “risk-taking” cutting-edge shows in later hours. Now Tarses seems to be blending definitions to create a new way to define what ABC stands for.

Sort of family

In her remarks, she acknowledged that “over the years, many have tried to define us as a family network, and we resisted. Not because that’s necessarily a bad thing, but because as broadcasters we felt this definition could be too narrow. We recognized the need to appeal to as diverse an audience as possible, and the traditional definition of family seemed limiting.”

A more “inclusive” definition of family viewing that extends to “a couple watching ‘Drew Carey’ ” or “guys at a neighborhood bar watching ‘Monday Night Football’ ” forms the basis for the fall schedule-setting, she said.

Despite the number of new shows, the lineup isn’t as radical a change as some may have expected: ABC is sticking with two-hour sitcoms on Tuesday and Wednesday, recently its strongest nights, adding more broad-appeal family shows on Tuesday. and more upscale, 18-to-49 shows on Wednesday.

Building block

The new strategy seeks to rebuild the TGIF Friday block, damaged by the expected move of “Family Matters” and “Step by Step” to CBS, which is looking to establish a rival Friday family night.

And on ABC’s weakest nights, Thursday and Saturday, the web will stick with five dramas, including four newcomers, adding a second “20/20” on Thursday to replace another newsmag, “Turning Point,” due back as occasional specials.

Tarses opted to stick with a Sunday movie behind “The Wonderful World of Disney” franchise being relaunched at 7, which sources said reflected a dearth of strong dramas to move into the night.

And on Monday, ABC will again lead into “Monday Night Football” with a TV remake of a theatrical, “Timecop,” in the slot where “Dangerous Minds” failed last season. The Universal Television drama had an early 13-episode deal at a pricey $1.3 million per.

Ad buyers’ reactions generally were favorable, but opinions were decidedly mixed about specific new shows. Highest marks went to 20th Century Fox’s sitcom “Dharma & Greg” and drama “Cracker.”

Creating potential

“They did what they were supposed to do, which is to say that the network has some focus and potential,” said Robert Igiel, exec VP, Young & Rubicam.

Others, however, believe the network is betting heavily on the successes of its new series to turn around its fortunes.

“If we judge it by the presentation, they did a great job,” said Betsy Frank, exec VP at Zenith Media. “That’s what people were coming to see as much as the shows. But there is a lot of stuff to promote, and not the greatest promotional platform.”

Of the 10 entirely new series, three are from studios of parent Disney, with two on Friday’s “TGIF” family block and another, “Hiller and Diller,” from Imagine Entertainment and Touchstone Television, in the cushy hammock between “Home Improvement” and “NYPD Blue” at 9:30 on Tuesdays.

The other Tuesday starter, “Over the Top” (Columbia TriStar) stars Tim Curry as a fired soap actor who returns to his ex-wife’s country inn and stays. The 8:30 series is sandwiched between “Home Improvement” and “Soul Man,” the “Home” midseason spinoff with Dan Aykroyd that aired three episodes this spring.

Wednesday ‘Spin’

On Wednesday, ABC will lead off with “Spin City,” the current season’s strongest new comedy, followed by “Dharma & Greg,” a hippie-marries-blueblood sitcom starring Thomas Gibson (“Chicago Hope”) and Jenna Elfman (“Townies”). “Drew Carey” will stay at 9, in one of fall’s most interesting face-offs against NBC’s similarly targeted “3rd Rock From the Sun.” “Ellen” and “PrimeTime Live” remain in their timeslots.

Thursday’s slate has “Nothing Sacred” (20th Century Fox), a drama about an irreverent priest, leading into “Cracker” with Robert Pastorelli (“Murphy Brown”) replacing Robbie Coltrane as the police psychologist in a remake of the British drama, from Kushner-Locke and Granada Entertainment.

“Cracker,” touted by insiders as perhaps ABC’s strongest drama, has the unenviable task of drawing viewers away from NBC’s “Seinfeld,” where Steven Bochco’s critically acclaimed “Murder One” languished last fall. A second “20/20” airs at 10, rewarding Barbara Walters and allowing ABC to follow NBC’s lead and cume audiences for newsmags with multiple airings.

Family Friday

Friday sees the move of “Sabrina,” a surprise hit this season, to lead off the night at 8, followed by the returning “Boy Meets World” and two new Touchstone fantasy sitcoms, “Genie” and “Teen Angel.”

Saturday has “C-16: FBI,” a younger-skewing remake of the 1960s series from Brillstein-Grey starring Eric Roberts; “Total Security,” a Bochco drama set in a security firm starring Jim Belushi, from 20th; and “The Practice,” David Kelley’s midseason drama with Dylan McDermott leading a scrappy team of lawyers.

In Sunday’s “Wonderful World of Disney” franchise, ABC has secured rights to recent Disney theatricals “Toy Story” and “The Hunchback of Notre Dame,” along with previously announced “Pocahontas” and Universal’s “Casper” and “Babe.”

Made-fors include a lavish remake of “Cinderella” with Brandy (“Moesha”) in the title role, and “Angels in the End Zone,” a sequel to the “Angels in the Outfield” theatrical starring Christopher Lloyd.

Occupying the later movie slot on Sunday are two miniseries, “Oprah Winfrey Presents: The Wedding,” based on a Dorothy West novel and starring Halle Berry; and “Peter Benchley’s Creature,” based on his novel, “White Shark.”

Theatricals include “Apollo 13,” “Waterworld” and “Dangerous Minds,” despite the series’ flop on ABC.

‘Videos’ sent home

Also absent from ABC’s fall schedule, the longrunning “Grace Under Fire” and “America’s Funniest Home Videos,” which have both received midseason backup orders.

Gone entirely are a rash of series led by “Roseanne,” and “Coach,” ending their runs; “Lois & Clark,” despite a two-year commitment to Warner Bros.; “Clueless,” expected to move to UPN; “Family Matters” and “Step by Step,” going to CBS; “Relativity,” “High Incident,” “Second Noah,” “Murder One,” “Common Law,” “Life’s Work,” “Townies” and midseason series “Spy Game,” “Gun,” “Leaving L.A.” and “Vital Signs.”

ABC Inc. president Robert Iger, in introducing the sked, said: “We’re not here to make excuses or spin our numbers. We realize we can’t solve all our problems at once.”

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