ABC rising above internal sieges and snarky journalism

ABC sold “Desperate Housewives” to viewers with the tagline “Everybody has a little dirty laundry.” According to James Stewart’s “DisneyWar,” it turns out the Alphabet has — or at least had – a closetful of secrets of its own.

While Stewart’s screed focuses on all aspects of the (not so) Magic Kingdom, its juiciest bits focus on the dysfunctional dynamics Disney brought to ABC, a network that ran with military precision under previous owner CapCities.

Based on the book’s anecdotes, it’s no mystery why the net spent so many years in the ratings basement: Everybody there was too busy backstabbing and second-guessing each other, leaving little time to develop good shows.

But while it might make for a fun read, “DisneyWar” isn’t causing much of an upheaval at ABC or even within other parts of the TV community.

That’s not to say people aren’t talking about the book — a lot.

Advance leaks and early excerpts had Hollywood’s assistants scrambling to snap up copies for their gossip-hungry bosses. Though it was scheduled for an early March release, Simon & Schuster moved up the publication date to Feb. 9 after a whispering campaign began touting the book’s potentially explosive content.

And even TV types who’ve long suspected something was very, very wrong about how ABC has been run might have been surprised at just how bad things had gotten. Case in point: Page 527, on which Michael Eisner — just days after “Lost” has bowed to huge rating– tells Stewart he thinks the show is “terrible.”

Yet whatever impact the book might have on Eisner’s rep or the selection of his successor, “DisneyWar” may have arrived too late to make much of a difference inside ABC.

For one thing, morale inside the Alphabet has undergone an extreme makeover in the past six months. Thanks to “Housewives,” “Lost” and a couple other hits — plus a regime change that included putting Steve McPherson in charge of the entertainment division — ABC has rocketed from also-ran to in-the-hunt virtually overnight.

Then there’s the overkill factor.

In the same way some filmgoers rejected “Fahrenheit 9/11″ because it went over the top in bashing the Bushies, some ABC and Disney insiders — even those who know all too well the failings of their bosses — are expressing dismay in what they see as “DisneyWar’s” single-minded focus: embarrassing Eisner and Bob Iger.

They believe Stewart’s book puts too much weight on the points-of-view of Eisner and Iger’s critics while unfairly attacking — and, in some cases, overly praising– others inside ABC:

  • Stewart says Iger advocated “Push, Nevada” even though it didn’t fit into the overall strategy of ABC chairman Lloyd Braun and entertainment prexy Susan Lyne. A reader might assume that this was another example of Iger’s poor judgment, of him forcing Braun and Lyne to program a dud they didn’t believe in.

The only problem: Braun loved “Push,” particularly in its early stages. Iger may very well have been a fan, too, but blaming him for its fast failure seems harsh.

  • Stewart claims that former ABC Entertainment prexy Jamie Tarses was the first Alphabet exec to pass on “CSI”: “It fell flat with Tarses,” he writes.

In fact, Tarses had left the network in August 1999, at least a month before Anthony Zuiker briefed ABC execs on his idea. And she had nothing to do with Touchstone Television giving up syndie rights to the show when it was greenlit to series by CBS in spring 2000. While Braun is depicted as being passionately against the syndie decision, other sources over the years have given a different version of that story — though figuring out whom to believe is always a tough task.

  • In explaining the decision to fire Stu Bloomberg, Stewart credits Lyne with helping create ABC hits “According to Jim” and “My Wife and Kids.” Both shows, however, were developed under Bloomberg’s watch and premiered long before Lyne had any role in ABC’s primetime development.

Intentionally or not, Stewart gives Lyne credit for shows she had no hand in putting on the air.

“It’s so slanted and so unfair … all ‘evil Mike’ and ‘evil Bob.’ It just really disappointed me,” says one Disney employee who knows all the parties involved. “It’s clear (Stewart) wanted to do a hatchet piece, and he found people who had axes to grind. The whole thing just makes me sad.”

One person who spoke to Stewart for the book says the author does a good job capturing the essence of what went down at ABC during the last 10 years. This same Disney insider doesn’t take issue with the veracity of Stewart’s reporting on the network either, saying Stewart “didn’t make things up.

“But it’s what’s omitted that makes the book incomplete,” the person says. “It really does change the tenor of what happened.”

Some critics of the book suspect Stewart may have relied too heavily on the word of one kind of source: embittered former ABC employees.

A classic example of a thinly sourced book that relied on disgruntled ex-executives was David McClintick’s 1982 tract about Columbia Pictures, “Indecent Exposure: A True Story of Hollywood,” which, according to insiders, leaned principally on the insights of Alan J. Hirschfield.

The book provided a lurid depiction of the check-kiting activities of David Begelman, Columbia’s then-head of production. Hirschfield at the time was the president of Columbia and tried to fire Begelman, according to McClintick.

A New York Times review of the book notes that Hirschfield comes off looking sympathetic in the McClintick book and speculates that’s because he provided more access than others involved in the drama.

While Disney granted Stewart extensive access, particularly in the early months of his research, the author makes it clear the company’s execs weren’t as forthcoming as he had hoped.

“Their participation, helpful as it was, did not rise to a level that I would describe as cooperation, certainly not as compared to the enthusiastic and exhaustive cooperation shown by many other sources,” the scribe writes in a note at the end of his book.

Indeed, there are plenty of “other sources” who might have good reason to spill the beans on Eisner and Iger, or at least point Stewart in the right direction of where the bodies are buried.

Former ESPN chief Steve Bornstein and former ABC Family chief Angela Shapiro were known as cable whiz kids before they abruptly ankled Disney. Iger publicly expressed strong support for Lyne just weeks before firing her. Rumblings of all three execs’ mistreatment at the hands of top Disney brass were widespread at the time of their respective departures.

As a result, it’s not much of a leap in logic to assume one or more of these execs briefed Stewart — or that they might have bitched to friends, who then spoke to Stewart.

Many inside and outside ABC suspect one of Stewart’s main sources may have also been Braun — or, again, people sympathetic to Braun’s point of view.

The former ABC chairman hasn’t denied he spoke to Stewart while he was still an ABC exec. Disney brass at the time were actually encouraging company execs to speak to the author, and Braun has never been the kind to mince words (though his exit agreement no doubt prohibited him from talking about the net once he left).

In the same way Michael Ovitz seemed paralyzed by Eisner’s lack of support, Stewart’s book clearly captures what many TV insiders have long suspected: Braun was continually hampered in his attempts to execute any sort of vision at ABC.

Eisner, for example, never tired of telling anyone who would listen that he could quickly fix ABC’s woes if he simply spent a day or two at the network each week. Stewart’s book also has Eisner arbitrarily moving ABC headquarters from Gotham to Burbank, simply because Eisner wants to lighten his travel schedule.

Eisner and Iger also admit they made the disastrous decision to air “Who Wants to Be a Millionaire” four times a week, over Braun’s objections. But in his zeal to indict Iger and Eisner, some wonder if Stewart didn’t minimize the flaws of others.

“The whole book makes Bob seem like he never worked (as a programmer) at ABC and makes Lloyd looks like he’s a genius,” one observer says.

Another exec argues that Stewart sometimes sees things in black-and-white terms — a risky proposition given the collaborative nature of the TV biz: “So many people’s opinions go into the making of decisions, both the good ones and the bad ones.”

Of course Stewart, a Pulitzer Prize winner, did scrupulous research. And, sources said, Disney lawyers gave the book an “unprecedented level of scrutiny,” demanding changes.

The fact that the book was rushed out may also be a factor. Peter Biskind’s 2004 “Down and Dirty Pictures” had multiple errors that were corrected in time for the second edition.

And even if some disagree with some of the details of “DisneyWar,” the portions of the book devoted to the Alphabet net are remarkable for their insight into how insane the network TV business has become.

Film types are used to regular exposes purporting to detail the “real story” of what goes into the messy business of making movies or of mega-mergers — think “The Devil’s Candy” (Julie Salamon’s tome about the making of “The Bonfire of the Vanities”) and Nina Munk’s “Fools Rush In,” one of many books about the Time Warner-AOL merger.

Broadcast networks haven’t been subjected to such regular scrutiny. Though focusing on a bigger picture, “DisneyWar” has emerged as the most revealing small-screen tell-all since Ken Auletta’s 1991 opus “Three Blind Mice.”

And as ABC emerges from its self-inflicted hell of the past five years, “DisneyWar” may serve as testament to the fact that execs at the Alphabet can withstand all sorts of intense pressure — even if you throw the book at ‘em.

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