ABC took the wraps off its 2005-06 programming strategy Tuesday — and for the first time in five years, the net’s top brass were able to get through the annual presentation without having to offer advertisers an array of apologies and mea culpas.
Confident but not cocky, Alphabet entertainment prexy Steve McPherson made it clear from the start that the net’s dramatic ratings surge this season — the biggest by any web in 25 years — was just the start of the net’s extreme makeover.
“This is a comeback in progress,” he said to the crowd gathered at Disney’s New Amsterdam Theater. “We are building our shows and rebuilding our relationship with our audience. Are we pleased? Absolutely. Are we content? Not at all.”
A year ago, McPherson took to the same stage a virtual unknown to most of the Madison Avenue crowd, having been in his job barely a month. Worse, the Alphabet was deeply mired in fourth place, and many industry observers seem convinced it would be years before the net would climb out of the hole it was in.
“Many of you were probably asking, ‘Who the hell is this guy?’ ” McPherson quipped. “And how on earth is ABC going to pull itself out of this mess?”
Twelve months later, McPherson has put ABC right back in the Nielsen game, but the Alphabet topper remains firmly in modest mode. He said the net was off to a “good” start but added it would be dangerous for anyone at ABC to get caught up in the hype surrounding the net’s resurgence.
“Our success and our future are dependent on one thing: It’s all about the shows,” he said. It was a TV biz cliche, but the way McPherson said it, it sounded like a revolutionary line.
In keeping with his mandate, McPherson presented a sked that offers shows like “Invasion” and “Commander-in-Chief,” which emphasize character and continuing storylines. At a news conference earlier in the day, exec said viewers were “demanding this kind of stuff.”
“People want appointment television,” he said. “They want that shared experience, not shows where they can see the 47th episode of something” that’s on the air multiple times a week.
That said, ABC still wants to find its own “CSI”-like procedural, betting on midseason dramas “Evidence” and “Injustice.”
Marketing blitz set
McPherson also plans to replicate the successful marketing and scheduling efforts that worked so well this season. That means hyping a couple of big skeins in September and having a number of backup programs ready to premiere in the winter and early spring.
“The television landscape has gotten crowded. We have to take advantage of the yearlong strategy,” he said.
Biggest midseason shift may come in January when ABC, for the first time in three decades, will be able to begin plotting a full-time Monday strategy, thanks to the departure of “Monday Night Football.”
Net’s current plan is to go after young women on the night, with returning skeins “The Bachelor” and “Jake in Progress” as well as newcomers “Emily’s Reasons Why Not” and “What About Brian.”
Still, McPherson said it’s possible that Monday (as well as other nights) could be tweaked in the coming months.
“Things change,” McPherson said. “We’ll see how the other shows and networks’ (schedules)” play out.
As for ABC’s other bold sked moves, McPherson said shifting “Lost” to 9 p.m. Wednesday was “an easy adjustment to make” since audience levels go up as the night goes on.
Net also moved “Alias” to Thursday night and paired it with a remake of cult classic “The Night Stalker.” “We want to be in business Thursday night,” McPherson said. “Are we looking to win? Of course not.”
During Tuesday’s upfront, ABC execs made much of how the net’s primetime success is spilling over into other dayparts. McPherson’s boss, Disney TV Networks co-chair Anne Sweeney, noted that according to preliminary ratings data, “Good Morning America” came within 70,000 viewers last week of NBC’s “Today Show.”
Also on the news tip, ABC is bringing back newsmagazines “Primetime Live” and “20/20.” Despite low ratings, canceling one of the two shows “wasn’t a debate in the scheduling process,” McPherson said. “We can do the best we can to give them the best lead-ins possible.”
Now that the world knows ABC can launch dramas, the biggest question among media buyers is whether the net can also build a comedy.
“They’re back in the game, but they need to make sure that the breakthrough with dramas doesn’t obscure the significant slide in sitcoms,” said John Rash, director of broadcast negotiations for Campbell Mithun. “Like all network TV, they need to crack the code on what a broad, accessible, multigenerational comedy looks like in 2006.”
ABC also used its upfront to announce that “Ed” star Julie Bowen would be joining “Boston Legal,” with Rhona Mitra and Monica Potter leaving the show. Candice Bergen will be back, however.
Net has also upped its order on “Grey’s Anatomy” to 22 episodes.