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ABC Will Take Risks, New Entertainment President Vows

July 27, 1996|BRIAN LOWRY | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Only a month after a management shake-up at the network, ABC Entertainment executives played their first game of "meet the press" Friday.

Network officials convened in Pasadena with TV critics from around the country, serving as a coming-out party of sorts for Jamie Tarses, the 32-year-old president of ABC Entertainment, who joined the network from NBC last month.

Flanked by her new boss, ABC Entertainment Chairman Ted Harbert, Tarses fielded questions about the impact she hopes to have on ABC, which watched its prime-time ratings slide dramatically last season.

The executives reiterated that ABC's new corporate parent, the Walt Disney Co., isn't exercising undue influence over the network lineup and said they would be patient with its prime-time schedule in the fall.

From that perspective, Tarses said that there were a few advantages in not being on top of the ratings heap. "Not being No. 1 gives you the opportunity to take a lot more chances," she said.

She and Harbert noted that ABC has little to lose, for example, in placing shows like "Murder One" and "High Incident" on Thursday night against NBC's powerhouse lineup, so the network will endure low ratings as long as the programs maintain their quality.

"We've got to find a show that we like and stick with it," Harbert said.

According to Tarses, who as a programming executive at NBC was associated with such comedies as "Friends" and "Frasier," ABC will still seek to provide family-oriented programs while focusing on finding shows with "a point of view and an opinion that you're not hearing out there in the television landscape."

Harbert added that the family-hour concept has become problematic because so many homes now have multiple TV sets, with children watching in one room and their parents in another.

Those shifting viewing habits have "changed the way we [approach] our business," he said, adding that networks don't "have the luxury anymore, unfortunately" of scheduling family programs every night.

Tarses did announce a major structural change: ABC will shift to a system of two distinct "teams" overseeing comedy and drama programs, with each responsible for both developing new shows and oversight of ongoing production.

Previously, ABC split development and current programming into separate disciplines. In that respect, the revised approach is similar to the "team concept" employed at NBC.

ABC vice presidents Greer Shephard and Carolyn Ginsburg will head the drama and comedy arms, respectively.

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Omitted from the announcement, however, was Kim Fleary--ABC's head of comedy development, and one of the highest-ranking African American women in the television industry. ABC had no comment regarding Fleary's status, but sources say that her exit from the network is being negotiated. Fleary, who has been at ABC more than 10 years, couldn't be reached for comment.

Regarding Disney, Harbert admitted that studio brass are making their opinions known but insisted that the previous owner, Capital Cities, did so as well. Because Disney is such a brand name, Harbert suggested, the involvement of its executives has received more scrutiny.

Harbert also reiterated that Disney's image of wholesome family entertainment wouldn't constrain ABC from offering more adult programs like "NYPD Blue." Disney releases R-rated movies, he noted, and Disney Chairman Michael Eisner is "interested in Jamie and I coming up with hits, and if they're adult hits, great."

Although there has been speculation that Disney will use ABC to tout its movies (as it did with a recent "Hunchback of Notre Dame" special), Harbert said the studio's marketing skills will benefit the network more than the other way around. "I think the trade is way in favor of ABC," he said.

ABC has stressed that Harbert and Tarses are getting along, in light of the much-publicized circumstances around her hiring, which was initiated without consulting him. As a joke, they entered jointly to the Turtles song "Happy Together."

Given that she only began at ABC in late June, Tarses was hard-pressed to outline any major contributions she's made thus far. "I've just been decorating my office," she quipped.

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