'Housewives,' 'Lost' among current hits

Nearly a decade ago, ABC Studios couldn’t win for losing.

The Walt Disney Co.’s primetime production unit, then known as Touchstone Television, came up with “CSI,” but dropped out of the production in 2000 when sister network ABC passed and CBS picked it up. The show, of course, went on to become a primetime and syndication powerhouse.

But if summer 2000 marked the worst of times for ABC Studios (which changed its name in mid-2007), the past few seasons have been the best.

Twelve years after Disney acquired Capital Cities/ABC, the Mouse’s TV studio, under the direction of prexy Mark Pedowitz, and broadcast network, led by entertainment prexy Stephen McPherson, have finally found the right programming groove.

Biz insiders may chatter about the occasional friction between the Alphabet’s network and studio, but there’s no denying the ABC-ABC Studios track record on the screen.

ABC Studios is the home of the big hits — “Desperate Housewives,” “Lost,” “Grey’s Anatomy,” “Ugly Betty” and most recently, “Brothers & Sisters,” “Private Practice” and “Samantha Who” — that have revitalized the Alphabet net’s fortunes and delivered many millions to Disney’s bottom line.

Moreover, ABC Studios has expanded into cable, fielding the biggest hit in Lifetime’s 24-year history with “Army Wives,” and has overcome the taint left by its “CSI” defection with its success in producing for non-Mouse nets, including CBS hit drama “Criminal Minds.” The studio is even dabbling in first-run syndication with the high-end Sam Raimi drama “Wizard’s First Rule,” set to debut in the fall.

The tipping point for the Mouse’s TV fortunes came in 2004, when an extreme makeover of Disney’s TV managerial ranks that April put former Disney Channel maven Anne Sweeney atop all the Mouse’s non-ESPN television outlets, and McPherson and Pedowitz in their current posts.

The groundwork for the studio’s turnaround was laid in the years just prior to the shakeup, during McPherson’s tenure as Touchstone TV prexy, when it fielded solid players for ABC like “According to Jim,” “Alias,” “My Wife and Kids” and “8 Simple Rules.” (“CSI” was also developed on McPherson’s watch.)

McPherson fought to preserve a measure of autonomy for the studio after the difficult 1999-2000 period when the Mouse’s big cheeses sought a total merger of the studio and ABC’s programming operation. In the 2004 transition, McPherson was able to shepherd the ABC premieres of the blockbusters-in-the-making he’d been developing on the studio side.

Indeed, it was the one-two-three punch of “Housewives,” “Lost” and “Grey’s Anatomy” bowing in the 2004-05 season that turbo-charged the profits Disney harvests from its broadcasting unit, which encompasses ABC and ABC Studios.

Operating income in the broadcasting unit soared from $278 million in 2005 to $703 million in 2007, according to Disney’s 2007 annual report. Disney credits those gains to higher ratings at ABC and strong worldwide licensing and DVD sales of ABC Studios’ productions. Since 2004, the Mouse’s TV studio has enjoyed the highest rate of annual revenue growth in the network’s 50-plus year history, according to Disney.

What accounts for the turnaround? Industry veterans point to the improvement in the management climate at Disney and ABC in recent years under the regime led by Disney CEO Robert Iger and Disney-ABC Media Networks co-chairman Sweeney.

“The studio team is willing to take creative risks, invest in quality, and do what it takes to create iconic, innovative shows,” Sweeney said. “They’ve created an environment that attracts talent.”

From Pedowitz’s p.o.v., the studio has been energized by its success — there’s no better magnet for talent — and by the resources and freedom they’ve been afforded by Sweeney and Iger.

“It (stems from) the support that Anne and Bob gave us,” Pedowitz says. “It’s symbiotic between the network and the studio: Steve and I both want to win. Steve and his team offer a lot of things creatively and they offer an unbelievable marketing machine. That’s been a game-changer in the network business over the last few years, and kudos to them for what they’ve done.”

Amid the turnaround with ABC, ABC Studios has ventured past the Mouse House’s four walls. CBS dramas “Criminal Minds” and “Ghost Whisperer,” both coproduced with CBS Paramount Network TV, were sold in syndication earlier this year and are heading into their fourth seasons.

The studio has a high-profile frosh comedy on CBS’ fall sked, the Jay Mohr starrer “Gary Unmarried”; and a second-year dramedy returning to CW, “Reaper.”

There’s no question that ABC Studios’ primary mandate is to deliver the goods for ABC and Disney-affiliated cablers. But the studio’s stature in the creative community is enhanced by the flexibility it has to do biz at non-Mouse shops. “We’ve been selective about what we’ll do,” Pedowitz says. “And I think it’s been recognized in the community that if we do get on the air someplace else, our partners will be satisfied by the quality of the production that we bring to the table.”

ABC Studios has two scripted skeins at ABC Family, the youthful drama “Kyle XY” and the upcoming “Samurai Girl,” and it is taking a bigger swing with TNT on the Steven Bochco legal ensembler “Raising the Bar,” which bows Sept. 1.

You wouldn’t know that all of this activity was emanating from the fourth floor of the Frank Wells Building on the Disney lot by the low-key media profile Pedowitz prefers to keep.

A replica of the suitcase toted by Professor Harold Hill in “The Music Man” sits prominently in his office (along with baseball memorabilia and pics of his beloved basset hounds). But Pedowitz is nothing like the smooth-talking huckster who charmed River City.

He’s a 17-year ABC/Disney vet who was the Alphabet’s head of business affairs before being tapped to run the TV studio after McPherson. A lawyer by training, he has long been respected as one of the TV biz’s most strategic thinkers on dealmaking issues.

Pedowitz had a major role in crafting Disney’s groundbreaking 2005 licensing pact with Apple’s iTunes that unleashed the download-on-demand era for ABC and Disney programming. And he was one of two industry execs drafted early in the year for the top-secret mission of working out the definition of “distributor’s gross” with reps for the Directors Guild of America. That definition was a linchpin of the DGA contract agreement that ultimately paved the way for the end of the 100-day writers strike.

In taking the reins at ABC Studios, Pedowitz sought to balance his lack of hands-on creative experience by giving a lot of authority and leeway to his strong No. 2 on the creative side, exec veep Julia Franz. By any measure, theirs has been a fruitful partnership. Pedowitz has nothing but superlatives for Franz, and credits her with giving him a “graduate course” in the finer points of development over the past four-plus years.

In the past few months, however, Pedowitz has been canvassing the town for a new creative chief, following Franz’s decision to step down at year’s end.

Pedowitz, with input from McPherson, has taken his time to consider his options carefully, but it’s understood he’s zeroing in on a candidate who will be seen by the town as an unconventional choice for the gig.

Top of the new guy or gal’s to-do list will be to get busy in comedy development. Pedowitz is proud of the success ABC Studios had in the past strike-interrupted season with Christina Applegate starrer “Samantha Who,” but he’d like to see the studio’s roster of half-hours be as formidable as its hourlong skeins.

Pedowitz’s fondest wish for the coming season? The resurrection of the old-fashioned, money-minting, crowd-pleasing sitcom.

“The ultimate home run,” he says with a grin, “would be a female skewing, multicamera sitcom with enough male appeal that it will become the biggest syndication hit in America.”

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