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Disney Plans to Consolidate Two of Its Television Groups

Broadcasting: Buena Vista production group would become part of ABC TV network, mainly to cut costs.

July 08, 1999|SALLIE HOFMEISTER | TIMES STAFF WRITER

In a radical restructuring of its prime-time TV operation, Walt Disney Co. plans to merge its Buena Vista Television Production group, which is now part of Disney Studios, into the ABC Television Network.

Under a plan that was still fluid Wednesday, Lloyd Braun, chairman of Buena Vista Television, which produces "Boy Meets World" and other prime-time series, would stop reporting to Disney Studios chief Joe Roth and begin reporting to either Patricia Fili-Krushel, president of ABC Television Network, or to Stu Bloomberg, chairman of ABC Entertainment.

Sources said the organizational structure was still under negotiation but that the issue could be resolved and announced this week.

The restructuring, which sources say was ordered by Disney Chairman Michael Eisner within the last month, is designed to better align the company's TV goals while reducing the redundancies of operating two TV groups at a time when network economics are strained and Disney's stock has slumped.

The move follows companywide cost-cutting measures and restructurings at other divisions.

Though the restructuring cuts the size of Roth's group, company sources said Roth has been pushing for the reorganization for several years and does not view the change as diminishing his power.

Although economics are driving the change, sources say the move also results from Buena Vista Television's lack of success in supplying ABC with programs and in finding a replacement for the recently retired "Home Improvement."

Disney spent $19 billion in 1997 to buy Capital Cities/ABC in part to ensure a distribution outlet for the TV shows that its studio produces. The purchase followed changes in federal rules allowing networks to own more of their own programs, threatening to reduce the time slots available for Disney shows.

But Disney's record in placing new series on ABC's prime-time schedule has been mixed at best, with Buena Vista supplying only five to the network in the coming season, fewer than the network buys from Fox's TV studio.

By comparison, Fox supplies nine of its own shows, including hits such as "The Simpsons," and "Ally McBeal." At Fox, the studio and the network report to the same person, which helps to coordinate the company's interests.

Part of the problem at Disney stems from a culture clash and turf wars that developed after the ABC acquisition.

Sources say that Braun has helped smooth tensions since joining the company in March 1998 as head of the TV studio, but that the network has been disappointed by his development. His group is supplying only one of the six new programs on ABC this fall.

Under one scenario, the studio would be merged into the entertainment division, giving Bloomberg control over both TV prime-time production and distribution through the network. Bloomberg, whose entertainment group is in charge of filling the prime-time schedule, reports to Fili-Krushel, who also oversees news, daytime, late-night and affiliate relations.

Though Braun is pushing to become co-chairman of the entertainment group, sources say ABC management is reluctant to disrupt the stability of the current structure after the management turmoil that erupted after the hiring of Jamie Tarses, who continues as network president.

TV sources say the new close alliance between the Disney studio and the network could improve ABC's chances of owning shows on its schedule, but could hurt its ability to supply other networks. There's another risk: ABC loses twice if it gives up a prized time period to a mediocre show that it owns. It would be financing a loser and giving up ratings--and advertiser dollars.

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