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Disney Mixes Show Biz, Marketing Muscle at ABC Affiliates' Meeting

TV: Event raised hopes among station owners and managers that ratings will revive soon.

June 07, 1996|BRIAN LOWRY | TIMES STAFF WRITER

ORLANDO, Fla. — It was perhaps appropriate that President Clinton appeared via satellite to address ABC television affiliates here Thursday, since the network's mantra boiled down to a variation on his 1992 campaign theme--in this case, "It's the programming and marketing, stupid."

From that perspective, the network's new owner, Walt Disney Co., seemingly accomplished its mission to allay the concerns of stations that carry ABC programming.

In its first meeting with affiliates since acquiring Capital Cities/ABC, Disney mixed show-business glitz and a demonstration of its marketing power. Top company executives stressed their commitment to ABC, and network executives essentially apologized for the network's recent performance, vowing to do better.

To station owners and managers, the three-day event raised hopes that a ratings revival is in their future, if not just around the corner.

In a business universally seen as being driven by hit programs, Disney's long-term ability to market products and create brand identity commanded more of the spotlight than the shows themselves.

"Tremendous focus was placed on marketing, and I think that's important," noted Andrew S. Fisher, executive vice president of Cox Broadcasting and chairman of ABC's affiliates board. "Something did happen [to television] in the last few years that required a different approach to marketing."

ABC announced at the meeting a number of initiatives that will use Disney assets as a means to promote ABC, among them a joint campaign with Disney World and McDonald's to help introduce the network's fall prime-time lineup. Other efforts will put ads on home videos, in retail stores and in more than 14,000 hotel rooms.

"I think the marketing side is a real plus," said River City Broadcasting Chairman Barry Baker. "Nobody can teach Disney how to market."

The network also scored points for owning up immediately to its recent ratings deficiencies.

"That defuses a [Laurence] Tisch-like firestorm," said Freedom Broadcasting President Alan Bell, referring to the former CBS chairman and his acrimonious relationship with affiliates. Admitting to errors, he said, is "a time-honored and wise device."

"There's a building momentum," said Ed Quinn of McGraw-Hill Broadcasting, which owns several network affiliates, including the ABC outlet in San Diego. Quinn acknowledged that "some of it is the sizzle and the way it's been sold," but he spoke for many station executives in expressing the feeling that Disney is determined to be competitive.

Meeting with Disney Chairman Michael Eisner and President Michael Ovitz helped as well, Fisher said, providing stations with "a sense of who has their hands on the ownership throttle."

*

Sitting on director's chairs, Eisner and Ovitz, flanking Capital Cities/ABC President Robert Iger, addressed various issues in a question-and-answer session Wednesday.

Eisner, frequently referring to his tenure at ABC from the late 1960s through the mid-'70s, stressed that ABC's current problems can ultimately be fixed with hit programs.

"The core of what we have to do is series television," Eisner said. ABC will pursue the same strategy Disney has followed in feature films, he added--by seeking to be "the most consistent network," always contending for the leading position.

Eisner described ABC's current ratings decline as "some hiccups along the way" toward achieving that goal. He also maintained that Disney has an advantage in that it is an entertainment company, referring to General Electric, NBC's corporate parent, and perhaps also alluding to Westinghouse, a broadcaster that shed a number of unrelated businesses to finance its acquisition of CBS.

"The bull quotient doesn't work with us," he said. "Nobody can talk to us and give us mumbo jumbo, [because] we all come from the same business."

General Electric, Eisner added, "has less of an understanding . . . well, they do well with engines."

*

As ABC executives stressed Disney's marketing clout, Eisner reiterated that the studio will preserve the sanctity of ABC News. Disney has even passed up certain promotional opportunities involving ABC, he said, to eliminate any perception of impropriety.

Eisner and Ovitz also gave a strong endorsement to ABC's current management, though that will be unlikely to quell rumors about further executive changes. In fact, ABC Entertainment President Ted Harbert joked about the uncertainty surrounding his own status in presenting the network's revised prime-time lineup.

Harbert's future has been clouded for months as ABC waits for NBC executive Jamie McDermott to be freed from contractual ties to that network in mid-June.

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