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ABC's Golden Boys : Executive vice presidents Ted Harbert and Stu Bloomberg are key to the network's assault on television's No. 1 position

August 05, 1990|JOHN LIPPMAN

A black-and-white photograph of Fred Savage and Danica McKellar, the teen-age stars of "The Wonder Years," hangs on a wall behind Ted Harbert's circular desk.

Harbert, the fast-talking, 35-year-old executive vice president of ABC Entertainment, explains why Savage and McKellar deserve space alongside pictures of his wife and 1-year-old daughter, Emily.

He turns to Savage's Boy Scout visage. "I was 13 years old in 1968, the same age Kevin Arnold is supposed to be, and I kind of identify with that character."

Harbert, along with Stu Bloomberg, who also holds the title of executive vice president, and their boss, ABC Entertainment President Bob Iger, are three-fifths of the team that has led ABC's turnaround of the prime-time schedule over the last three years. The other two-fifths, former ABC Entertainment President Brandon Stoddard and his ex-aide Chad Hoffman, have moved on to other jobs.

For the Record
Los Angeles Times Friday August 17, 1990 Home Edition Calendar Part F Page 12 Column 1 Entertainment Desk 1 inches; 20 words Type of Material: Correction
Wrong creator--An Aug. 5 article about ABC-TV misidentified the creator of the sitcom "Full House." The series was created by Jeff Franklin.

Called Teddy by his friends and co-workers, Harbert talks with the velocity of a machine gun emptying a magazine clip. "That show reminds me what it was like to grow up in the 1960s." So Kevin Arnold is really Ted Harbert? "Yeah, that's me."

Harbert's identification with the fictional Kevin Arnold is an apt metaphor for the improving fortunes of ABC's prime-time schedule, which last year accounted for half of the network's $2.4 billion in revenues. The erstwhile Kevin always seems to act more adult than his parents, who often appear overwhelmed with the rapidly changing mores of the Middle America world around them.

Such is the case at ABC these days, which if not yet the overall ratings leader, is in many ways acting wiser than the competition on the prime-time programming front. Last season ABC's prime-time ratings were flat compared to the previous season (CBS' and NBC's were down), but that is actually considered progress in today's overheated race among the three networks, Fox, dozens of cable channels and home video for the viewer's attention.

ABC now gets much of the critical praise once reserved solely for NBC. The network has begun again to gush profits after several years of losses and barely breaking even. While top-ranked NBC is seen by many to have strayed from the creative lead it held during most of the 1980s, and CBS looks to find its way out of a bottomless ratings hole, ABC is attracting top producers and writers who only a few years ago wouldn't go near the place.

This is, after all, the network of "Twin Peaks," "thirtysomething," "The Wonder Years," "China Beach," "Equal Justice," all high-brow shows--by commercial standards anyway, which are the only meaningful standards in Hollywood. It is also the network of "Who's the Boss?," "Full House," "Perfect Strangers" and "America's Funniest Home Videos," money-making shows that pay the bills for the critically acclaimed dramas.

And next season it will be the network of "Cop Rock," arguably one of the riskiest shows ever tried in network prime-time: a police drama where the characters break into rap songs or love ballads in the middle of a scene.

In contrast to the programming departments at CBS and NBC, which have tended to be run from the top down by two very confident and autocratic executives like Jeff Sagansky and Brandon Tartikoff, ABC has relied heavily on the input from the "two No. 2's"--Harbert and Bloomberg. That is because Iger, named 16 months ago to succeed Stoddard, had limited experience in the entertainment side of the network.

Harbert and Bloomberg do not get as much attention as their boss but are the lifeline to the program producers that was needed when Iger, an outsider, was named president of ABC Entertainment in March, 1989. Within weeks after his appointment, he elevated them to their present jobs.

Whenever a new network programming chief or film studio head is appointed in Hollywood, there is usually a rolling of heads and deep-sixing of projects from the previous administration--a repudiation of the immediate past in the way that Soviet premiers would remove the political icons of the previous regime.

There has been remarkably little turnover under Iger, however, in part because he recognized that, coming from New York where he had spent most of his career in sports and network financial jobs, he lacked a keen sense of the inside workings of the Hollywood production community. "He didn't come in and say, 'I know everything and am better than you.' He got to know everybody and is a quick study," Bloomberg relates.

Says Chad Hoffman, the former head of drama development at ABC who is now an independent producer: "Bob has two very experienced executives in Stu and Ted. He is the first guy to admit he doesn't know something."

"I have final call on scheduling issues," Iger says. "I manage this place day-to-day so they can step back and concentrate on the creative process."

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