Speaking on a day filled with rumors of imminent firings of top ABC executives, Brandon Stoddard, ABC's new programs chief, lashed out Wednesday at low-caliber programs and said he wanted his network to air programs that have "more respect for the audience."
Stoddard, who isn't among those rumored to be facing the ax from ABC's new owners, Capital Cities Communications, didn't specifically chide his network for offering the kinds of "predictable" and "superficial" prime-time programs he decried.
But it seemed clear that was what he was talking about in his inaugural press conference as the new head of ABC Entertainment, a post to which he was appointed last November.
Meeting with visiting TV writers at the Century Plaza, he spoke of the "surprising anger and frustration with television" that he has felt over the past year, and vowed to build an ABC "that has a renewed sense of dignity, a new respect for itself."
ABC ended last season as third in prime-time ratings and has remained there so far this season. Last week it suffered its worst week in a year in Nielsen averages, when it came in nearly six full ratings points behind NBC. NBC, although leading in season-to-date ratings, came in second and CBS was first.
Stoddard didn't discuss, nor was he asked, about rumors that ABC Board Chairman Frederick S. Pierce and other top executives--save ABC News and Sports President Roone Arledge--were about to get axed by Cap Cities, which took over the network on Jan. 3.
A Cap Cities spokesman in New York said the company had "no comment at all" on the rumors. Speculation about the future of Pierce and others began when Cap Cities bought ABC for $3.5 billion. The two companies are now known as Capital Cities/ABC Inc.
Stoddard, while heading ABC Motion Pictures, helped develop such hits as "Roots," "North and South" and "The Day After," and is well-respected in the Hollywood community.
He conceded Wednesday, albeit jokingly, that ABC will end this season as third in prime-time ratings, quipping that "we're the only network that has nine problem nights."
Speaking seriously, folks, he said that ABC's new owners "feel the emphasis (by him) should be on the prime-time schedule, and we're trying to fix that as fast as we can." But he cautioned that a turnaround won't happen overnight and that it will take a long time.
He declined to set any timetable. However, if NBC's past is ABC's prologue, it could take at least 3 1/2 seasons to make ABC truly competitive. NBC, once deeply mired in third, took that long to rise from the Nielsen cellar after Grant Tinker became its board chairman.
Tinker's battle cry was--and remains--quality programming. Stoddard echoed that in his prepared remarks, saying that he is tired "of programs that have little to do with emotion, lots to do with meaningless action sequences, and promotion that screams . . . "
Some network executives, he added, "have convinced themselves that it's OK if we think our program is dumb and boring, because the little old lady in Peoria will love it. I'm going to bet my job that the little old lady in Peoria thinks it's dumb and boring too."
By no means will all of ABC's future programs will be what critics would praise as top-drawer, he said, but "I hope we can move the general quality up."
Discussing other matters, Stoddard said that ABC's planned "Amerika" miniseries project--recently criticized in the Soviet Union as going against the spirit of the Geneva summit meeting--hasn't yet been given a go-ahead for production.
The program, which Stoddard said had been cut from a planned 16 hours to 12 hours for budget reasons, portrays a fictional America 10 years after it has been taken over by the Soviet Union. He said ABC now is again considering the costs of the program.
The ABC executive, who announced the proposed miniseries last year, said that the network hasn't "resolved the budget situation" yet, but probably would know next week whether "Amerika" would get the green light to start production.
Soviet criticism of the project wouldn't keep ABC from doing the show, he said, but "it is only responsible that that situation be factored into the decision."
He also said fixes were being made in "Dynasty," which has drooped in the ratings because of negative audience reaction to two current story lines--a coup in the fictitious European nation of Moldavia and the kidnaping of Krystle Carrington.
"I think a number of mistakes were made," he said, but expressed confidence that the changed direction of the show would help restore its ratings.
As for ABC's current schedule in general, Stoddard said that there are no "major changes or shifts we can make" in its prime-time roster for the rest of this season, but there are some prospective next-season series in development now that "are reasonably promising."
His staff still is in the process of looking at proposed next-season series, he added, "so I think all we're going to do there is make the best pilots and series we can, and maybe we'll get lucky."
The writers packed into the conference room in which Stoddard spoke erupted in laughter after his answer about how he could combat NBC's hit "The Cosby Show" on Thursday nights.
"World War III would be good," he said.