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A New Abc Team Seeks Its Prime-time Comeback

February 25, 1986|JAY SHARBUTT | Times Staff Writer

Toward the end of April, ABC executives, like those at NBC and CBS, will decide which new and current series, miniseries and TV movies will be on the prime-time roster next fall. Advertisers will get the word shortly thereafter, and so will network affiliates.

For producers and executives alike, it's an annual, high-anxiety, megabuck rite of spring. But this time out, third-place ABC has a new team in the game, a team created before and after Capital Cities' $3.5-billion takeover of the company Jan. 3.

Its new leader is a newcomer to network television--John B. Sias, 58, a lean, athletic, joke-loving ex-paratrooper. He was named president of the ABC division after 14 years as a top executive at Cap Cities' publishing arm. He has eight prior years of broadcasting experience, at Westinghouse and Metromedia. But his dossier lists no network time.

That shouldn't prove a major problem, says Robert Bennett, a colleague of Sias' during the latter's years at Metromedia: "I can tell you that while the rest of us are sleeping, he's up studying. And he's a quick study."

That will stand Sias in good stead, as he has much to study quickly. He faces a variety of important pending items, including contract talks with two major broadcast unions (see separate story) and Hollywood's uncertainty about how he'll operate as head of ABC.

But restoration of ABC's prime-time fortunes heads his list of priorities--and that of his respected programming chief Brandon Stoddard. It also is the No. 1 concern of ABC's affiliates, whose network was No. 3 in prime-time ratings last season and will doubtless be there when this season ends.

The head of ABC's affiliates board, Joseph T. Jerkins of KVUE-TV in Austin, Tex., says that affiliates were "quite pleased" when Stoddard was appointed to his new job last November by then-ABC Board Chairman Frederick S. Pierce.

They thought that a good start, he says, and are equally pleased that "they (ABC's new owners) have committed both privately and publicly to the affiliates that Stoddard will have the funds" and time needed to get ABC out of third.

But neither Jerkins nor any other industry officials recently surveyed think this will happen until the season of 1987-88, despite Stoddard's track record of such hit miniseries as "Roots," "Winds of War" and last fall's "North and South."

"I think some progress can be expected next fall, but I would be surprised if the 1986-87 season moved ABC into a strong second," he says. "I'd be delighted, but I'd also be very surprised."

Sias hasn't publicly talked about this or other ABC matters yet. But then, his style is a far cry from that of Grant Tinker of first-place NBC. Tinker has been remarkably accessible to the press almost from the day in 1981 he took charge of the then-ailing company.

Not so ABC's new chief. As far as reporters are concerned, Sias has been the Lamont Cranston of network executives since taking office. He won't do interviews, saying he's too new on the job and still feeling his way.

"Maybe next year," he breezily told a Times reporter who briefly spoke with him in January at a four-day, closed-door summit conference of Cap Cities and ABC executives in Phoenix.

(Stoddard also declines to be interviewed, saying he prefers that his programs and schedules speak for themselves. But in a January press conference, his first as ABC's chief programmer, he made a loud, clear, Tinker-like call for quality and programs that have "more respect for the audience.")

One thing is known about Sias and Cap Cities: their reputation for a taut, no-frills operation in which definite goals are set and key executives are then given great autonomy to achieve said goals. Woe betide the key executive who fails--or worse, tries to duck the blame.

That Sias is high on Stoddard is without question. At the Phoenix conference, Sias, chatting with two ABC executives about the network's prospects for a prime-time comeback, enthused about him thusly:

"I'm proud to be associated with Brandon. . . . It may take a couple of years, but if we believe in Brandon and hang in there, I think we'll make it."

But it remains to be seen whether Cap Cities' tight-with-a-buck reputation and Sias' relative inexperience in dealing with Hollywood producers and their red-ink lamentations will prove a major obstacle in ABC's comeback attempt.

"It's true that they (ABC's new bosses) don't know networking, or network-type production, per se," says former ABC Vice Chairman Elton Rule, now a producer here. However, he adds, "I think they're smart enough to know they have to be flexible" in dealing with the Hollywood community, and "they have a hell of a lot of confidence in Brandon."

"I don't expect to see any real changes" in spending for TV movies and miniseries, says one studio executive, who like many interviewed by The Times declined to be identified. However, he adds, the Sias-led team, with Cap Cities' philosophy of fiscal austerity, may prove less willing to take a gamble than in ABC's past years.

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