The man who turned down Bill Cosby's show at ABC came out of seclusion this weekend to report that while all is not well at the third-place network, he expects the situation to improve in the months ahead.
Despite a 12% ratings decline from last year that has left ABC trailing CBS and NBC, Lewis Erlicht, president of the network's entertainment division, said he still is unwilling to concede that, for the first time in 10 years, ABC might end the prime-time season in third place.
"I think it is so close that one big hit could really change the face of the standings going into the last half of the season," Erlicht said Saturday as he met with television reporters from newspapers across the country. They are gathered at the Century Plaza for a series of screenings and interviews with network executives, producers and performers.
Erlicht, who had declined all requests for interviews during the last two months, seemed relaxed and straightforward in fielding questions Saturday about the unexpected nose dive ABC has taken this season. Five of the nine new series it introduced last fall have been canceled, and the performance of the other four--"Call to Glory," "Three's a Crowd," "Finder of Lost Loves" and "Who's the Boss?"--ranges from fair to poor.
"We recognize we have problems; we're trying to solve them," Erlicht said. "There is no panacea, no overnight solution. It's a tough business."
He confessed that one of the reasons he had not made himself available to the news media during recent weeks was because he was busy working on those problems.
He was even candid in discussing the hit that got away: "The Cosby Show." After being rejected at ABC, the comedy series was picked up by NBC and became an instant success when it debuted last September. So far this season it ranks as the fourth most popular series.
Erlicht said that he passed on the show because the producers were asking for a series commitment based solely on the information that Cosby would star "in a family show done out of New York." There was no pilot episode, not even a script.
"There didn't seem to be any substance for committing to a series," Erlicht explained. "I think that show, without Bill Cosby, would not be a hit. What I failed to see was that he is a star of tremendous magnitude."
In his defense, Erlicht noted that before last season, ABC had passed on "Emerald Point, NAS" and "Mr. Smith," series that subsequently were picked up by CBS and NBC, respectively, and died in the ratings.
Nevertheless, "The Cosby Show" has come back to haunt ABC. Its popularity has boosted the ratings for the comedy series that follow it in NBC's Thursday lineup--"Family Ties," "Cheers" and "Night Court"--and that in turn has been a key factor in NBC's rise to a strong No. 2 position.
For the season to date, CBS is averaging a 17 rating in prime time, NBC has 16.1 and ABC stands at 14.9 (each rating point is said by the A. C. Nielsen Co. to represent 849,000 households). A year ago at this time, CBS was averaging 18.1, ABC had 17, NBC trailed with 15.1.
While the standings have no direct bearing on network business, they are indicative of relative strength and therefore of relative advertising revenue. A difference of one point over the course of a season can represent $50 million or more in fees collected from selling commercial time.
Although ABC has only four series in the top 20--"Dynasty," "Hotel," "The Fall Guy" and its Sunday night movie block--Erlicht contended that much of the network's deficit in the season-to-date ratings stems from the first three weeks of the season.
While Erlicht declined to speculate on how the networks will finish the season, he said that he expects ABC to show a "vast improvement" in the next three months. Besides moving several series to new time slots and introducing two new police series, "Street Hawk" and "MacGruder and Loud," this month, the network has three miniseries on tap for the spring, including a dramatization of the best-selling novel "Hollywood Wives" and a sequel to last season's successful "Lace."
Unlike its rival networks, ABC did not schedule any miniseries during the first half of the season, and Erlicht said that decision now appears to have been a mistake.
In discussing additional programming plans for the spring, Erlicht disclosed that ABC has ordered a series from Walt Disney Productions, "Wild Side," which he described as a lighthearted Western. He credited the new Disney management team of chairman Michael Eisner (a former ABC program executive) and production chief Jeff Katzenberg with being the catalysts in making the deal.
On another programming front, Erlicht announced that George Lucas, producer of the "Star Wars" trilogy, will produce two Saturday-morning cartoon series featuring characters from the films.