Prime directive for ABC

ORLANDO — Humbled ABC execs struck a proper note at the opening of the Alphabet web’s summer affiliates meeting here Tuesday, and station execs seemed surprisingly mild in their reactions to a dismal primetime season.

ABC Inc. chief exec officer Robert Iger led off the proceedings by allowing that “this probably has been the most challenging year in my 23 years at ABC,” but expressed hope for “restoring ABC to dominance,” as his boss, Walt Disney Co. chairman Michael Eisner, looked on.

After a “thorough restructuring of our management team” over the past two weeks, led by the naming of Preston Padden as ABC network president, Iger said he’ll rededicate himself to primetime improvement in a daypart where “it’s clearly time to rebuild.”

He defended the addition of 11 new series on the fall schedule, arguing retaining aging shows like “Coach,” “Roseanne” and “Grace Under Fire” “would’ve clearly been less risky, but also would have lessened our chance to improve.”

Screenings of two ABC pilots, “Dharma & Greg” and “Nothing Sacred,” were generally well received.

A presentation by ABC Entertainment president Jamie Tarses is set for today, so Tuesday’s gathering was given over to dog-and-pony shows by the sports, news and daytime programmers, along with a marketing presentation of the web’s bold newidentity campaign centered on an irreverent slogan, “TV is good.”

Padden also addressed affils for the first time, outlining three key mandates: helping the network to stem broadcast share erosion, addressing affiliate concerns over exclusivity when “repurposing” programs in other venues, and ushering in the digital TV age.

On the broadcast vs. cable exclusivity front, he promised to avoid a “zero-sum fight over which one loses the most to the other,” in a veiled reference to a skirmish between NBC and its outlets, and he embraced digital TV as “nothing less than an opportunity to completely reinvent our businesses.”

In the first such move by a network, ABC has agreed to a request by stations to reimburse them for the cost of new satellite digital receivers for new digital transmission.

The reimbursement, spread over five years beginning with the conversion, will cost the network an estimated $150,000 per station, or about $30 million if all sign on, said Andrew Fisher, president of Cox Broadcasting and the outgoing affiliate board chairman.

For each station, that represents about 10% of the total conversion cost, but is a significant gesture, especially for stations in smaller markets, Fisher said.

Padden also struck a conciliatory note by purposely distancing himself from his own reputation at Fox, where his hard-nosed approach to dealing with early recalcitrant affils stemmed from his mission of “trying to push a wheelbarrow full of frogs.”

Fisher and other affils said ABC’s strong affil relationships have improved its credibility at a time when programming “weaknesses are costing all of us a lot of money,” although he later said the year is not “a catastrophic one” and saw some signs of improvement in the May sweeps.

“What you see is ingredients for a meal and great chefs,” said Alan Bell, president of Freedom Broadcasting, “but what they have to do is put the pieces together and make it work.”

And while patient, many affils privately said they don’t expect dramatic improvement next season.

“They’re working on what everyone thought they’d be working on,” said Gary Robinson, G.M. at Scripps Howard’s WEWS Cleveland. “We’ll give it some time and see how it plays.”

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