ABC Entertainment President Lew Erlicht, whose network slid into third in the prime-time ratings last season, made an unusual public mea culpa Friday for ABC's past habit of tinkering with some series in hope of making them succeed.
That was an "incorrect way" to deal with Hollywood's creative community, he said, later adding: "I think we got in the way of some good ideas, and more than that, could have led good concepts astray by trying to insert formulas that didn't work."
And, he vowed, no longer will ABC cause such distress for television folk who tussle with the Muse. Erlicht spoke at a morning press conference at the Century Plaza, where out-of-town TV critics and writers are attending ABC's four-day summer press tour.
He invited the reporters to call producers to confirm that there's been a "definite change" in the way ABC does business with its program makers. He told the visitors that he had faced the problem in January and that the changes he promised then are now in effect.
During his press session, Erlicht also rejected contentions by some Madison Avenue analysts that ABC's fall schedule is a loser, and reiterated his belief that next fall will prove to be "a closer race between all three networks than ever before."
ABC, whose descent into third last season was the first time that had happened in a decade, last May replaced more than a third of its schedule with 10 new series, including a spin-off of "Dynasty" and "Diff'rent Strokes." The latter had been axed by upstart NBC, which last season emerged in second place after nine seasons as No. 3 in the prime-time ratings.
Earlier this month, ABC slightly reshuffled its announced 1985-86 schedule, puttting two new situation comedies on hold--"Mr. Sunshine" and "He's the Mayor"--and installing "Spenser: For Hire," which stars Robert Urich as a private investigator.
Erlicht, whose calm manner belied the great pressure he's under to improve ABC's prime-time position, declined to predict how his network will wind up at the end of next season, "but I'll tell you this: We will make significant gains."
In discussing this, he sounded almost like NBC board chairman Grant Tinker in 1981, when Tinker first joined that then-sagging network and urged patience, patience, patience with his rebuilding program.
ABC's prime-time restoration effort, Erlicht said, is "going to take time. There are no panaceas, no substitutes to get you there." Success, he added, "is a slow process that is governed only by if your programming has what it takes."
His remarks on ABC's new policy of non-interference with its program makers came when he was asked about recent criticism of ABC by Gary Goldberg, producer of NBC's "Family Ties." Erlicht said he'd talked with Goldberg and learned that his displeasure stemmed from an unhappy experience he'd had with ABC seven or eight years ago.
Erlicht said that he had assured Goldberg that times have changed and added that Goldberg seemed to accept this. But Erlicht readily conceded that over the years, criticism by Goldberg and others that ABC brass had meddled too much in the creative process "was justified" and "entirely correct."
There was a time when a network could ask for what it thought might prove a winning formula in a series, he said, but that was when viewer choices were limited. Now, with cable TV and the rise of independent stations, viewers in major cities have up to 20 TV signals from which to choose.
Therefore, Erlicht said, "what you have to be is unique . . . and the uniqueness must come from the person creating that show. And if you try to stifle that uniqueness or put everyone into the same bag with a formula, then you're going to get shows looking alike. And that's not going to work."
What a programmer must do now, he declared, again sounding like NBC's Tinker, "is that if you believe in the (program) creator and you believe in the idea, let him go."
Should the creator stray from the concept the network has bought, "it's our job to bring them back," he said, and if a show's quality diminishes, "it's our job to bring that up to par. But it's not our responsibility to rewrite lines or to add characters."