The most compelling drama at ABC this fall will be the one unfolding behind the scenes.
Network execs are under enormous pressure from their Disney bosses to make the coming season a ratings success. Nobody’s expecting ABC to vault from fourth to first in the course of nine months, but reversing the net’s recent Nielsen slide — and demonstrating tangible audience growth — is the goal of all Alphabet staffers.
Indeed, how ABC’s new and returning skeins perform this season could very well impact the future of a slew of Mouse House execs, including big cheese Michael Eisner.
ABC toppers Lloyd Braun and Susan Lyne are betting the net’s future — and their own — on a programming strategy that emphasizes familiar, family-friendly fare.
After several years of pushing the envelope with skeins such as “Sports Night” and “Once and Again,” the net will try to lure viewers with meat-and-potatoes programming, much of it with a very retro feel. Even ABC’s signature on-air yellow campaign has been overhauled and now sports a brighter hue.
“We will leave the groundbreaking to somebody else,” Braun says.
Except for the aggressively quirky new reality sudser “Push, Nevada,” ABC’s new batch of comedies and dramas would have fit quite nicely in the net’s 1992 or even 1982 lineups.
Family comedies such as “8 Simple Rules for Dating My Teenage Daughter” and “Life With Bonnie” feature familiar faces (John Ritter and Bonnie Hunt, respectively) and plenty of adorable kids. Hospital drama “MDs” plays like an hourlong “MASH” (without the Emmy-caliber writing), while “That Was Then” is mostly set in the 1980s.
Critics may be disappointed, but Lyne says ABC is giving audiences what they want from network TV right now.
“For the vast majority of the television audience, TV is what they do after a long day at work or after being with their kids all day. Something that is overly complex and overly demanding, while I’m thrilled shows like that are on (the air), they may not be what most of our audience is dying to watch at 8 o’clock, 9 o’clock or even 10 o’clock.”
A key part of the Alphabet’s back-to-the-future strategy involves marketing the net’s weeknight 8-9 programming as the ABC Happy Hour. All the shows airing during that frame will be family-friendly, though not necessarily family-themed.
“What we were really trying to do with Happy Hour was to offer an entertaining block of television that was targeted at our core 18-49 audience but would be fine to watch with a 10-year-old or 12-year-old,” Lyne says.
The Happy Hour label also reflects that, except for “My Wife and Kids” on Wednesdays, none of ABC’s 8 p.m. weeknight anchors were in that slot last fall. Marketing the shows under one banner gives ABC a way to generate some much needed buzz.
While Braun and Lyne are confident they’ve got the right programs and the right marketing plan to resuscitate ailing ABC, most industry insiders believe that the network — despite some positive steps — has a long way to go before it climbs out of the ratings basement. As much as Eisner and Disney board members might want a quick fix, even Braun realizes it’s going to take time.
“We have a big responsibility to turn this thing around and to turn it around as quickly as we possibly can,” he says. “But I think the most important thing for us now is to show the ship is headed in the right direction and that the seeds of a really strong schedule in years to come have been planted and are starting to grow.”