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ABC’s hit-hungry team

Renewals for 'Alias,' 'Jim,' 'Wife and Kids' part of net's long-term success plan

ABC’s Susan Lyne and Lloyd Braun on Sunday promised to turn around the troubled Alphabet web the old-fashioned way — by developing big hits.

Speaking to journos at the net’s portion of the semiannual Television Critics Assn. press tour, Braun, ABC Entertainment Television Group chairman and Lyne, the net’s new entertainment prexy offered up several mea culpas while simultaneously pushing the idea that a new chapter was about to begin for the network.

Both agreed that successful scripted series — rather than stunts or reality skeins — would be key to a comeback. To that end, Braun announced second-season renewals for the Touchstone-produced frosh skeins “Alias” and “According to Jim” as well as Touchstone’s second-year laffer “My Wife and Kids.”

“We want to lift the network into first place. I don’t do that with cheap stunts,” Lyne said. “That’s not the way I think we develop long-term success.”

Braun said the net’s been hurt by having a sked made up largely of singles and doubles but no grand slams.

“We don’t have the sequoias that other networks have,” he said. “We think we’ve got some seedlings … but we don’t have any sequoias right now.”

Lyne said her development would try to “raise the bar” in terms of quality while also attracting big ratings. “I like to win,” she said. “But there are some programs that win awards that end up on PBS, and (they) should. I look for programming that is great but that will also have mass appeal.”

Both Braun and Lyne said ABC will produce more comedy and drama pilots this development season, with Braun noting that the net already had “almost 50% more scripts” in the works than a year ago this time. ABC’s development budget will remain roughly the same; extra pilots will be possible because of the reduced cost of talent this year compared to last.

But ABC’s plans to fast-track a dozen comedy scripts in the hopes of testing three or four new laffers this spring have been scrapped. With Lyne in place and Disney management seemingly willing to give the new Braun-Lyne administration some breathing room, such bold moves no longer made sense, insiders said.

“Nobody wants to rush what is potentially great material just to get something on the air,” Lyne said.

ABC has closed a deal with Warner Bros. Television to produce four episodes of the previously announced George Lopez laffer from exec producer Bruce Helford. The other nine segs from the show’s original 13-seg order are still expected to be produced for later broadcast.

Lyne also repeated ABC’s commitment to more family-themed shows, saying those programs and “provocative dramas” have provided “the mix that made ABC No. 1” in past seasons.

“I’m not looking for single, twentysomething comedies,” she said. “That would be a hard show to pitch me right now. That’s an NBC show.”

Before introducing Lyne, Braun offered up an almost ritualistic act of contrition for ABC’s recent ratings performance, admitting the net was “in the midst of a very disappointing season.”

“We’ve made our share of mistakes, most notably … our failure to develop new hits behind ‘Millionaire’ while it was blazing hot,” he said. “And we have paid the price this season for that.”

Nonetheless, both Braun and ABC Television prexy Steve Bornstein argued the Alphabet’s comeback won’t be impossible.

“The gap between all four networks has never been smaller,” Braun said. “So while our rebuilding challenge is significant, we really don’t find it daunting or unachievable.”

As for the ongoing battle between ABC’s new quizzer “The Chair” and Fox’s similarly themed “The Chamber,” Braun admitted he would have liked more time to promote his skein. Nonetheless, “We wouldn’t launch ‘The Chair’ if we didn’t feel we were able to promote it effectively and get viewers to watch.”

A significant chunk of Sunday’s sesh was devoted to questions from journos seemingly agitated by ABC’s decision to pass on one producer’s idea for a 25th anniversary salute to the landmark Alphabet miniseries “Roots.” NBC picked up the project, which is already drawing lukewarm response from critics here who have screened the hour.

Braun said ABC execs simply didn’t like the pitch they heard for the spec and decided to come up with their own salute — a three-part retrospective set to air later this month on “Good Morning America.”

When reporters continued to press the subject, the newly installed Lyne took one for the team and said if anyone was to blame for ABC not having a more elaborate salute to “Roots,” it was she.

“If anybody should have suggested that to the network, fought for it, it’s probably me, and I didn’t think to do that,” Lyne said. She said that with ABC fighting its way out of the Nielsen cellar, execs didn’t have “the luxury to sit back” and develop a “Roots” spec.

While Lyne took the hit for the “Roots” controversy, the rest of her first week in office has gone well, she said.

“I actually don’t feel under any huge pressure at the moment,” she said. “Come May or September, I may feel much more. I actually feel quite loved at the moment.”

In light of Disney prexy Bob Iger’s comments to Daily Variety last week that he planned to be more involved in ABC programming, Lyne said she she’s not worried about corporate interference.

“I certainly see Bob as a big asset,” she said.

Elsewhere during ABC’s press tour:

  • Braun said he’s talking to Steven Bochco about a renewal of “NYPD Blue.” He hinted at a possible multiyear pact but gave no details.

  • ABC said it had reduced “Once and Again’s” 22-episode order to 17 segs. Fate of the show beyond this season remains iffy.

  • Braun said he “miscalculated the effect” of his November statement that “Who Wants to Be a Millionaire” was not a lock to return next fall.

Nonetheless, “We’re just not sure what the most effective way of programming ‘Millionaire’ for the future is going to be,” Braun said. “But I expect you’re going to see it for a long time.”

(Michael Schneider contributed to this report.)

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