Third-place network ABC will be taking some big risks in the fall--big enough to bring publicity-shy entertainment president Brandon Stoddard out of hiding for an unexpected, informal meeting with the press Friday morning to explain the more startling fall prime-time scheduling choices.
Among those decisions: the move of the successful "20/20" from Thursday to Friday nights; the revival of variety shows with "Dolly," a Sunday show starring Dolly Parton, and the renewal of several low-rated shows.
"There's a lot of risk involved in this," Stoddard said. "There's a lot of risk, but we had to take it. To leave things where they were would have been like putting Band-Aids on open wounds.
"And most (such decisions) don't work," Stoddard acknowledged. "But we think they will work."
By "working," Stoddard did not mean he believed ABC had a chance of becoming the first-place network within one season. Rather, he looked at the network's bold changes as putting ABC on the right track.
ABC's car-crash, low-comedy days are over, Stoddard asserted. "This year's shows are about something--they have more of a reality base," he said.
Stoddard, who has publicly treated ABC's recent dismal performance with his own wry brand of humor, continued in that vein. He joked that ABC's only goal for the 1987-88 season was "Survival!"
Stoddard joked that ABC executives "weren't under any extraordinary drug pressure" when moving "20/20" to Fridays. The decision had less to do with "20/20" than with promoting one of its movie nights. By switching Sunday night movies to Thursdays, Stoddard explained, the network could hype the movie during its strong Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday prime-time lineup, rather than during the weaker Thursday, Friday and Saturday schedule. He said he thought the "20/20" audience would follow the show to Friday.
On the renewal of some low-rated programs--including "Max Headroom," "The Charmings" and "Sledge Hammer!," which will compete with "The Cosby Show" on Thursday nights--Stoddard said that "known quantities" were easier to promote than new shows, especially in a competitive time slot.
And, he added, ABC just didn't have enough strong shows available to replace all the weak ones. "It would have been lovely to have 15 perfect shows, but we didn't," he said flatly.
Stoddard said he "just didn't know" if Dolly Parton could revive enough interest in the variety genre to put ABC back into the running on Sunday nights, but he thought that she could have the same warm audience appeal as Oprah Winfrey.
Stoddard said the network was also working on another pilot with Winfrey. (One has already been scrapped.) Other shows in the works as mid-season replacements include "Clinic," from Jay Presson Allen, "Pursuit of Happiness" and "It Had to Be You."
Although two Aaron Spelling pilots were not picked up for fall, Stoddard said ABC plans to continue its long-standing relationship with Spelling, whose hits for ABC have included "The Love Boat."
In the wake of the failure of the 14 1/2-hour "Amerika" miniseries--Stoddard's dream project of last season--he acknowledged that the miniseries form was undergoing a down period. That doesn't mean fewer ABC miniseries, he said, but shorter ones. He still has hopes of developing a miniseries that would follow a family through the Vietnam era, but it would probably cost far more than cost-conscious Capital Cities/ABC would be willing to spend.
Stoddard admitted the impending Directors Guild of America strike June 30 would hit ABC hardest. Still, he said ABC's strong bank of theatrical movies could be used in the fall if a strike delayed production of new shows.
And don't look for more original "Moonlighting" episodes next season than last, he warned. Because of star Cybill Shepherd's pregnancy and a slow shooting schedule, "Moonlighting" will only have about 18 new shows, he said.