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Optimism Runs High At Abc Affiliates Meeting

June 05, 1986|MORGAN GENDEL | Times Staff Writer

A crowd of ABC affiliate station managers walked through a somber blue mist below Century City and emerged into a dazzling array of food, drink, music and lights.

The action was perhaps symbolic. The annual meeting of ABC's 212 affiliate stations had begun--with the premiere of "Space Camp" and the post-movie party in Century City Tuesday night--and optimism was running high that new bosses from Capital Cities Communications can lead the network from the ratings doldrums into the promised land.

"We did not get into this business to be No. 3 in prime time," Thomas S. Murphy, chairman and chief executive of Capital Cities/ABC, told the gathering of about 1,000 on Wednesday morning. "Those of you who know Capital Cities know that we've always tried to be first" (at the TV stations that the company owned prior to the merger).

The opening session of the affiliates meeting marked the debut of "Murph," as friends and top executives call him, and also belied the "lean-and-mean" style for which Cap Cities is known. Executives stressed the new ABC's aim to please the Hollywood creative community and showed the affiliates that the network has ample resources.

"Not one dime has been taken out of programming," Cap Cities/ABC President Daniel Burke added a few moments later. As evidence, he cited Murphy's approval of the $100-million budget on "War and Remembrance," the miniseries sequel to "Winds of War."

Indeed, contrary to its cost-cutting measures during the first five months of ownership, the Cap Cities regime seemingly spared no expense to convince this already enthusiastic crowd of the company's potential.

Wednesday's opening session included a live satellite hookup with Anatoly Shcharansky in Jerusalem, Archbishop Desmond Tutu in South Africa, Chrysler chief Lee Iacocca in Detroit and House Speaker Thomas P. (Tip) O'Neill in Washington--all for the benefit of the affiliates.

A slick, three-minute, prime-time promotional video was shown--not once, but twice, just in case anyone may have missed the lavish production values and the multitude of well-known stars. (Based on "Together," the fall season campaign theme, the video shows ABC's prime-time and news stars in slices of life with their families, all the way from Hugh Downs sail-planing with his grandson to Robert Urich and his family at Disneyland.)

The final presentation of the morning highlighted the network's sports shows, with a presentation by Dennis Swanson, president of ABC Sports.

The satellite feeds were part of a seminar on the theme of liberty mounted by ABC News President Roone Arledge and conducted by panelists Peter Jennings, Barbara Walters, Ted Koppel and David Brinkley. The session was a blatant commercial for ABC's presentation of the Liberty Centennial celebration on the Fourth of July weekend, but the message from the electronic extravaganza and from all of the opening day's events was clear: Cap Cities/ABC can marshal some heavyweight forces in its quest to get out of the prime-time ratings cellar, where it has finished the past two seasons.

Murphy, who in past years sat in the audience representing Cap Cities' ABC affiliates, showed himself to be a roll-up-the-sleeves leader as he spoke without a prepared text and candidly acknowledged that ABC's network TV division will lose money in 1986. "But the merger was put together with thoughts like that in mind," he said, citing a "cost squeeze" in ad revenues that has affected all three networks.

He also appealed to the affiliates for their help, asking them to stick with the network shows. The stations are free to preempt a certain amount of programming if they believe they can air something more enticing.

The affiliates responded warmly.

"If there's anybody in the world who can help ABC, it's Cap Cities, because they're lean and mean," said station manager Richard Pearson of KVIA-TV in El Paso, Tex. Pearson's station, an ABC affiliate that broadcasts the network's news, sports and entertainment shows, is nonetheless No. 1 in local ratings.

Pearson said that Cap Cities' approach to trimming waste and focusing on essentials--Burke noted that corporate paperwork has been cut by a third--is exactly like the one used by his station in its rise to local dominance.

"We recognize that they're winners," said Bob Rice of WPRI-TV, Providence, R. I."You come to a meeting like this with hope--especially if the network is No. 3."

Cap Cities' managerial style was made evident soon after the merger, when it laid off hundreds of workers in the news departments at the ABC-owned stations. It is evident behind the scenes at the affiliates meeting, too, where network employees who previously had hotel accommodations now prepare to drive in and out of Century City each day.

To broadcasters from across the country, many of whom look upon Hollywood as a community of excesses, those gestures are not to be frowned upon. "Cap Cities," said one financial analyst present, who asked not to be quoted by name,"could be the model for the entire television industry."

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