Not as easy as ABC

Tarses, other execs say rebuilding to take time

ORLANDO, Fla — ABC execs sought to make lemonade from their proverbial lemons as they closed their annual affiliates meeting here Wednesday, confronting head-on the network’s declining fortunes and promising to do what it takes to improve them.

On the second of two days of meetings, a business session dealt with issues ranging from digital TV to “Good Morning America,” ABC Cable president Geraldine Laybourne presented a new Saturday morning schedule (see related story) and Entertainment president Jamie Tarses presented the fall primetime schedule, addressing lingering doubts about her abilities.

“Let’s face it, you don’t know me or what I’m capable of,” she said in her closing remarks to affils. “But it’s ultimately not about me. In the end it’s about hit shows. I believe we’ve developed some this year, and I’m confident we’ll find some more. All it takes are a couple of years.”

Affils reiterated earlier comments that ABC execs’ candor helped buy time to turn things around (Daily Variety, June 4), but most said they realistically expect no quick fixes.

“It’s a year of rebuilding,” said Tony Vinciquerra, group exec at Hearst Broadcasting. Ten new series make the sked tough to promote, he said, but “if they can solidify Tuesday and Wednesday, that will be huge.”

“It was comforting to hear the network knew where they stood,” said Bradley Nilsen, VP-GM at KNXV Phoenix. “They acknowledged the areas they know need attention.”

Some said they expected improved late news lead-ins from “20/20” on Thursday and “The Practice” on Saturday, but questioned the flow between two Sunday movies.

And others bemoaned the lack of proven 8 p.m. family shows, the web’s former stronghold, prompting ABC prexy Robert Iger to respond that while “we’d prefer to have family programs at 8, the schedule we have makes the most of the product we have.”

In other affil meeting news:

Despite the season’s falloff, Walt Disney Co. Chairman Michael Eisner told affils in a private business session that he’s “much more optimistic today than a year ago about the future of the network,” and said digital TV offers the opportunity for broadcasters to “take back the field” from encroachments by cable and satcasters.

Eisner said his view is that ABC is now worth more than the $19 billion Disney paid for it in 1995, so “we feel good we underpaid” for it.

ABC said it won’t address specifics of its plans for digital TV until execs develop a business strategy, expected by summer’s end. But stations say new ABC network president Preston Padden hopes they’ll agree to carry potential new Disney and ESPN channels with their new digital signals.

Iger calmed fears over program exclusivity vs. satellite TV systems, saying “it is not our intention to offer a network signal to anyone who would use that signal to violate your market.”

ABC News chairman Roone Arledge promised swift changes at lagging “Good Morning America,” saying “it will be soon and it will be good” but offering no specifics beyond the fall departure of longtime anchor Joan Lunden.

Station execs reacted to the web’s new “TV is good” ad campaign, with some objecting to irreverent copy like “Books are overrated.” That ad will now be discarded. Some stations viewed the TV-embracing campaign as innovative, but one GM said “it’s unclear whether it will promote ABC.”

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