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ABC spells success, sez Sweeney

Topper expects large profits if hit shows stay strong

ORLANDO — Anne Sweeney, head of the Disney-ABC television group, said Tuesday the Alphabet’s primetime lineup “is starting to take back television screens across the country, one night at a time.”

She painted a rosy picture for the coming years if ABC’s new hits and returning shows stay strong. Based on past syndication deals, she anticipated a potential $750 million in operating profit from a combination of “Alias,” “According to Jim” and “My Wife and Kids,” and another $500 million from “Desperate Housewives” and “Lost.” ABC’s owned-and-operated stations could add some $50 million to profits in 2006 as well.

Flanking Sweeney at Disney’s confab here, ESPN and ABC Sports topper George Bodenheimer said the cable net was still negotiating with Major League Baseball and the National Football League, and hoped to renew both deals. He reiterated Disney would pony up for “Monday Night Football” if it makes “financial sense.”

Bodenheimer said that after rough negotiations last year, ESPN had locked up 50% distribution of the net through 2012. Discussions with Comcast and Time Warner Cable, who haven’t yet reupped, are “very positive.”

Powerhouse ESPN is Walt Disney’s major growth driver, ABC its big turnaround story.

Execs cautioned ABC’s recovery is still in its early days and that Disney’s Touchstone Television, which produces the hot new shows, will be running up deficits for a while even as ratings at the network soar. Still, the new lineup will push the net into the black this year.

Spots on “Desperate Housewives” cost three times what they did in the upfront, and “Lost” spots have doubled in price. Sweeney said it’s too early to discuss prospects for the upcoming upfront, but that ABC “will be in the best position we’ve been in for years.”

The two hit series will be out on DVD in September.

Sweeney said ABC is in talks with cablers and satcasters about launching ABC “on demand,” but wouldn’t comment on timing or structure of that potentially controversial move. The Mouse offers the Disney Channel on demand.

Disney will invest $200 million on original programming for ABC Family, Sweeney added. The net has seen ratings rise and revenue grow by 40% since the Mouse bought it in 2001 in what Disney execs have acknowledged was an overpriced deal. Sweeney’s goal is to develop a homegrown hit and “drive it firmly into cable’s top 10” by the 2007-08 season.

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