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Entertainment chair ankles

ABC Entertainment chairman Ted Harbert, who started at ABC some 20 years ago and rose through the ranks to his current post, is exiting the network effective Feb. 15.

Harbert, 41, was upped to chairman last June after former NBC senior programming exec Jamie Tarses came aboard as president of the entertainment division.

When ABC began wooing Tarses last year, it was anticipated that Harbert would exit. However, ABC and parent Disney decided they wanted Harbert to stay on as well and renegotiate his contract.

It was the second time in a year that he had his contract revised. Earlier last year, ABC gave him a new three-year deal, in response to wooing from Universal Studios president Ron Meyer, who was interested in Harbert as a candidate to become chairman of the studio’s TV group.

While the contract’s expiration date in August 1998 did not change after the second renegotiation, Harbert did have a window inserted into the deal that would allow him to exit at the start of this year. On Monday Harbert told ABC president Bob Iger that he had decided to leave.

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Harbert is said to have a solid relationship with Tarses, despite the awkwardness that both went through when word of ABC’s plans to hire her were leaked last year, before Harbert could be debriefed. But sources close to Harbert speculated that he did not relish the notion that any ABC turnaround in the ratings would be solely credited to Tarses, while failures would be traced back to the previous administration.

Harbert said he has no plans at the moment, but that did not stop the rumor mill from starting up. One prominent scenario has Harbert landing at DreamWorks either with a production deal or in a senior position within the company. Harbert is close to DreamWorks principal Jeffrey Katzenberg.

Harbert has been with ABC through both the Capital Cities and Walt Disney mergers. His exit package is said to be in the neighborhood of $10 million to $12 million, depending on the performance of Disney’s stock down the road.

ABC has been struggling in the ratings for the past two years, and is currently down 15% in household ratings from last season. Many of its veteran shows, including “Roseanne” and “Home Improvement,” have slipped in the ratings, and its new shows have not been as strong as the web had hoped (although freshman “Spin City” is currently among the top 10 primetime shows).

“I’m proud of this network when we’re No. 1 and I’m proud when we’re not No. 1,” Harbert said, adding that his decision to leave has nothing to do with the web’s performance of late. “My desire is to seek out a new challenge. I love this company, but I have a need to learn something new and make it tough on myself,” he said.

Harbert said he takes pride in having been a key supporter of ABC’s “NYPD Blue,” which faced incredible backlash from affiliates and advertisers when it first launched in 1993, and other shows including “The Wonder Years,” “thirtysomething” and “My So-Called Life.” (One show that got away was the NBC hit “3rd Rock From the Sun,” which Carsey-Werner had originally developed for ABC.)

In the 1994-95 season, he led ABC to its first primetime ratings victory since the 1978-79 campaign.In a statement, Iger said Harbert has made “enormous contributions to the success of the network” and that the entertainment division has “benefited greatly from his talent, experience and enthusiasm.”

Alphabet shuffle

Harbert is the latest of several high-profile departures for ABC and Disney. Last month, Disney president Michael Ovitz left after a little over a year in the post. ABC has also restructured its programming and affiliate relations divisions over the last several months.

ABC said it has no plans to fill Harbert’s post. Tarses, who had reported to Harbert, will now report to Iger. Besides working with Tarses on ABC’s programming, Harbert also oversaw ABC Entertainment’s business affairs as well as relations with the ABC sales staff, and dealt with the web’s affiliates.

Expected to take on much of Harbert’s duties are Jeff Bader, vice president of program planning and scheduling; and Mark Pedowitz, senior VP of business affairs, who recently renewed his contract. Besides his current duties, Bader will likely focus on working with ABC sales and affiliates on programming issues.

Still, many industry observers are wondering whether down the road Iger and Disney CEO Michael Eisner will look to make further changes in the division. Both are very involved in the web’s programming and scheduling decisions.

Lurking in the background is Geraldine Laybourne, the creator of the Nickelodeon cable network, who joined as president of Disney/ABC Cable Networks early last year. Since coming aboard, Laybourne has added duties of oversight over the web’s children’s programming division, and is well regarded both within the company and the industry. Laybourne reports to Iger.

Lame duck on tour

Although Harbert has now officially decided to exit, he will be on hand today and Thursday when ABC presents its midseason programming plans to the Television Critics Assn. press tour. Many in the industry are puzzled as to why Harbert will attend ABC’s portion of the press tour, but sources within the network said Iger wanted him to attend.

While Harbert may have taken a background role since Tarses’ high-profile arrival, he was still the network’s point person on industry and corporate matters such as the recently implemented ratings system. Tarses, who primarily has focused on program development, will now likely have to assume some of that mantle.

Harbert first joined ABC in 1977 as a feature film coordinator in the ABC Entertainment division. He rose through the ranks, holding posts in scheduling and program planning, and was named entertainment president in 1993 after Iger left that post to become president of the network.

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