ABC ENTERTAINMENT PRESIDENT Stephen McPherson appeared via satellite from Paris at last year’s TV Critics Assn. tour, which inconveniently coincided with his honeymoon. A year later, the honeymoon for ABC, at least, keeps going.
Even competitors are marveling over the almost unprecedented run the Disney-owned network has enjoyed in the past 12 months, especially given the daunting hole in which the company found itself. And while rival execs can derive some comfort from that — lending credence to the notion hits can be planted on near-barren soil — perhaps the bigger consolation in eyeing ABC’s momentum is the headaches that invariably come with managing success.
Gazing back to where ABC was in July 2004 reveals a fourth-place network that had just months earlier booted its top programming execs, Lloyd Braun and Susan Lyne. Parent Disney, meanwhile, grappled with an investor revolt against CEO Michael Eisner. A smartass columnist (OK, me) schlepped to Disneyland in order to crack wise about California Adventure’s new Tower of Terror ride providing a metaphor for the network’s headquarters.
By now the emergence of “Desperate Housewives” and “Lost” has become an old story, but those twin towers are part of a surprisingly renovated landscape. Existing reality show “Extreme Makeover: Home Edition” blossomed, and “Grey’s Anatomy” benefited from “Housewives’ ” lead-in to become the net’s third dramatic hit during the spring.
This summer, all four series garnered significant Emmy nominations, and “Dancing With the Stars” joined ABC’s arsenal. Summer blooms are always suspect, but it’s easy to foresee this one becoming a key midseason utility player, especially in another go-round that might showcase stars people have actually heard of. To top things off, the unscripted program that replaced it, the rather unsavory “Brat Camp,” also got off to a promising start.
The richness of this harvest was evident when ABC outflanked the other nets during the upfront sales period, closing deals early to siphon an additional $500 million out of a tight market — leaving NBC, in particular, scrambling to catch up. As for the corporate side of the equation, CEO-in-waiting Robert Iger recently mended fences with dissident former board members, eliminating that distraction.
CBS Entertainment prexy Nina Tassler enthused last week that the major networks have “reclaimed control of the water cooler from cable,” but who’s kidding whom? Millions watch “CSI: Miami” and “Law & Order: Special Victims Unit,” but those franchises don’t generate the same level of passion, prestige or pop-culture moorings as ABC’s serialized hours, as underscored when first lady Laura Bush tossed out a “Housewives” joke at the White House correspondents dinner.
To its credit, CBS gradually built a formidable lineup, but seeing ABC establish four and possibly five hours on a 22-hour schedule in such a brief span rightfully has eyeballs popping like a Warner Bros. cartoon — especially from a network/studio combo that once resembled the gang that couldn’t develop, schedule or promote straight. Indeed, a few pundits wondered whether the net had slipped below the critical mass necessary in weekly viewership to adequately market new programs using its own airwaves.
McPherson has conservatively resisted the temptation to engage in a public Snoopy dance, as well he should. Beyond keeping its wealthy-and-sure-to-get-wealthier children happy, ABC must guard against its serials veering off track — a cautionary flag raised by “Lost’s” first-season finale, which left some fans grumbling. Programmers must prepare, too, for losing “Monday Night Football” next year and, like everyone else, find some means to launch comedies.
Regarding the doubts that greeted the Alphabet’s ability to promote last fall’s newcomers within its own lineup, McPherson acknowledges, “People were right to be skeptical about the circulation. We had to go off air.”
As for how rapidly the progress has come, he says, “I don’t think anybody could have expected that. … It’s been a lot of fun, but there’s a lot more work to do.”
Toward that end, the emphasis remains on staying humble and hungry. “I still wake up sweating,” McPherson says — though not because of maintenance or contract issues that will surely dog these new hits. “This is a very fickle business. … One of the things we have to be cognizant of as a network is to not stop taking risks.”
Risks go hand in hand with the current TV biz, but the rewards are rarely this immediate or impressive — especially for a company that couldn’t buy a break. ABC still seemed snake-bitten as late as last summer’s press tour, in fact, which opened with an explicit sex scene from FX’s “Nip/Tuck” inadvertently popping up behind Disney-ABC Television Group chief Anne Sweeney as she addressed reporters.
Sweeney ad-libbed her way through the glitch, demonstrating the final lesson from ABC’s memorable year: Planning and hard work account for a lot in TV, but given how unpredictably the primetime currents can change direction, be ready to swim with the tide.