Station reps show concern over net's performance

ABC threw its first full-blown affiliates meeting in several years Thursday, hoping to pacify stations skittish over the net’s primetime ratings woes.

For most affil execs, it was their first chance to meet new Disney-ABC Television prexy Anne Sweeney and Alphabet entertainment topper Steve McPherson, who outlined their strategies to reverse ABC’s course.

Sweeney had to skip most of Thursday’s sessions to attend her son’s high school graduation but met with station execs on Wednesday during a closed-door meeting.

Nerves calmed

ABC affiliate board chairman Deb McDermott — who heads up Young Broadcasting — said she felt Sweeney soothed some nerves in the crowd.

“There’s always a little bit of skepticism as new people come on board, but I’m very confident about her abilities,” McDermott said. Sweeney’s address “helped people feel comfortable with the quality of her leadership and the ability to move the network forward.”

McDermott said she was also impressed with McPherson’s creative relationships and said she believed the new programming chief “has a good sense of what the audience is looking for.”

But as the news and sports divisions have seen some strong growth as of late, McDermott said the net’s “real problem” remains primetime. To that end, McPherson also had a chance to explain the net’s fall schedule to affils.

“Everybody is feeling very good about everything but prime,” McDermott said. “And primetime made the changes that needed to be made, so now is the time for us to see if they can deliver. My confidence level is 100% higher than it was when I walked in the door Tuesday.”

Q&A qualms

Concern over the net’s performance was most evident during the affiliate body’s Q&A session with network execs. Traditionally, only a handful of questions are asked during such sessions. But station reps spent over two hours grilling the network Thursday.

According to McDermott and John Rouse, ABC’s senior veep of affil relations, questions ran the gamut from indecency in programming (network operations prexy Alex Wallau promised the net doesn’t come close to crossing the line) to how quickly the network can wrap up sports coverage that spills out of primetime and into local news time periods.

Affils also asked about ABC’s Olympics counterprogramming strategy (all comedy, all the time) and the network’s erratic scheduling of original episodes of shows like “Alias” (a problem resolved by pushing the actioner to midseason).

As for the net’s digital spectrum plans, Sweeney, Wallau and McDermott plan to hold a conference call in the coming weeks to discuss how the network and affils will work together to program the extra bandwidth.

“We’re anxious to get moving,” McDermott said.

Also on ABC’s plate Thursday:

  • Rouse confirmed that ABC will hold another major affiliates confab next year. Net and affils hadn’t officially met in two years before this week’s event.

  • McPherson announced launch dates for ABC’s fall sked, sticking most of its debuts in the time-honored “premiere week.”

    ABC will kick off the season Monday, Sept. 13, with the premiere of reality entry “The Benefactor,” followed by the season start of “Monday Night Football.”

    After that, the net’s Tuesday night lineup will bow Sept. 21, while Wednesday’s “Lost” and a two-hour “The Bachelor” debut Sept. 22. Thursdays are back Sept. 23, with premieres to follow on Friday, Sept. 24, Saturday, Sept. 25, and Sunday, Sept. 26.

    Reality skein “Wife Swap” rounds out the premieres, joining the sked at 10 p.m. on Wednesday, Sept. 29.

  • Alphabet web yanked Wednesday’s episode of “Jimmy Kimmel Live” off the air, replacing it with a repeat, after Kimmel took a few jabs at Detroit on the show.

    The city and its ABC affil, WXYZ, had already been fuming after Kimmel made a few cracks about the city (and its alleged penchant for rioting) during Tuesday’s NBA Finals telecast. The Alphabet didn’t want to fan the flames and decided to pull the show.

    “We made the decision based on what we thought was best for the show,” an Alphabet spokesman said.

    Kimmel said he meant no harm.

    “It was never my intent to cause anyone pain. I was trying to make a joke, and I’m sorry it resulted in anything other than laughter,” he said in a statement.

  • Separately, ABC confirmed that actress Sheryl Lee is no longer a cast member on the net’s upcoming frosh drama “Desperate Housewives.”

    Lee had previously signed on to play the role of Mary Alice, a suburban woman who commits suicide and now narrates the world of her family, friends and neighbors from beyond the grave.

    Insiders said ABC is scouting for an actress who can lend a more humorous tone to the black comedy. It would have been Lee’s second-go round as a deceased character for the Alphabet web, having starred as “Twin Peaks” victim Laura Palmer.

    The rest of the show’s extensive cast, including Teri Hatcher, Marcia Cross and Felicity Huffman, remains.

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