WASHINGTON — A momentous event that will have no immediate dramatic effects.
That is how broadcasting industry leaders have characterized the news that ABC will be sold to Capital Cities Communications Inc. for $3.5 billion. It is the first time a company that includes a TV network has changed hands, and thus a milestone in the life of American media.
Generally, reaction is positive. "It's great for both sides," says Frank Stanton, former and longtime president of CBS Inc.
"Those are two good and well-run companies, and if you put two good companies together, you are bound to make a better one," says Grant Tinker, chairman and chief executive officer of NBC.
"The better and stronger they become in a very competitive world, the more it enhances all of us," says Gene F. Jankowski, president of the CBS Broadcast Group.
The big and obvious question is how ABC will change and how these changes will be apparent to television viewers.
One possible effect down the road: The 1988 Summer Olympics from Seoul, Korea, may be more likely to appear on NBC than ABC, because new ABC chairman Thomas S. Murphy is a notorious cost-cutter and may not be willing to shell out $500 million, or whatever the asking price is, for the games. ABC already has the Winter Games from Calgary, Canada, sewn up. Bidding on the Seoul games has yet to commence.
The ABC Television Network, most visible part of the ABC empire, is now staggering out of its worst season in 17 years. There would have to be programming changes even if the company hadn't been sold. But will Murphy change the personnel who make those changes?
Some insiders suggest the man who may leave is Frederick S. Pierce, ABC Inc. president. "Nobody, Pierce included, can step out from responsibility for those recent decisions," Tinker says. Another industry insider says the merger came about because ABC chairman Leonard H. Goldenson, 79, realized he did not feel confident about turning the company over to Pierce.
But, asked who should be blamed for this year's ratings fiasco, former ABC Entertainment President (and former NBC chairman) Fred Silverman says: "You can't really point the finger at anyone. You just have to say 'they.' The damage isn't irreparable at this point, but if they don't have good program development, they could sink further, and then it could take five to 10 years to come around."
Silverman, asked if ABC is in worse shape than it was in the early '70s when he took over, says: "Yes. This year has been a bleep, to say the least. ABC is at a crossroads. They can recover. All it takes really is three good shows to start the turnaround."
One man who may take the rap for the lousy year in prime time: ABC Entertainment President Lewis Erlicht, the man who turned down "The Cosby Show," which then went to NBC and has become the biggest smash in years. Erlicht recently got the equivalent of a demotion in an ABC executive restructuring.
Whatever the changes in personnel, viewers will not see noticeable changes on the air for months and months, maybe years, and there is no indication yet that Murphy will opt for a "quality" approach to programming as opposed to ABC's current junk shop of the air. Next fall's programming will most likely be just as it would have been without the takeover.
"If you live in Fort Wayne, Ind., you are not going to perceive any change in ABC," Stanton says. "These changes just don't come about overnight."
Tinker says, "I would be very surprised to see any noticeable change." He also says he hopes ABC will "keep slumbering" so NBC can continue to beat it in the ratings.
Inside ABC, employees may notice changes as soon as the deal goes through. Murphy is the Clint Eastwood of cost-cutting. Those limousines, those three-figure lunches, those generous stock bequests and bonuses, may be doomed. Sources at other networks chortle at the thought of what will happen when Murphy lowers the boom.
But an ABC spokesman says: "I don't know that we are as 'lavish' as we are made out to be. We don't have a company plane; CBS has four! I don't think we have a 'perky' company. While our compensation policies may differ, in terms of what people make here, we are quite similar to our competitors."
In at least one respect, an era really is ending: Goldenson, the ABC chairman who built the company into a giant after a grubby beginning in the 1950s, will step down. When he got into television, it was risky business. Then it became big business. Now it is mega biz, and getting bigger even as we watch.