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ABC Replaces TV President

Networks: Appointment of new entertainment chief underscores its need to reinvigorate programming, ratings.

January 08, 2002|RICHARD VERRIER and CORIE BROWN | TIMES STAFF WRITERS

Walt Disney Co. on Monday named a new president of entertainment for its ABC television network and announced the resignation of veteran executive Stu Bloomberg, underscoring the network's decline and its need to reinvigorate programming.

ABC named Susan Lyne, the network's well-regarded executive for movies and miniseries, to head entertainment programming. Lyne will assume many of Bloomberg's programming responsibilities. Stepping down after a 22-year career at ABC, Bloomberg declined to comment.

"A change is being made in the key creative role at the network," said Robert Iger, president of Walt Disney. "This is not about placing blame. It's admitting the problems and figuring out the solution and moving on."

Just two seasons ago, ABC was the No. 1 network thanks in large part to the hit game show "Who Wants to Be a Millionaire." In its zeal to capture the heat from the "Millionaire" phenomenon, Disney and ABC executives decided to run the show four nights a week. When the show unexpectedly ran out of gas, the ratings for the network plummeted. In the last two years, ABC has fallen from No. 1 to No. 4 in the key 18-to-49-year-old demographic prized by advertisers.

The lack of new hit shows as well as backup shows that could fill the gap created by the failing "Millionaire" left ABC struggling to fill its prime-time hours. Highly anticipated shows such as "Bob Patterson," a sitcom starring "Seinfeld" alumnus Jason Alexander, were instant failures, while ABC's long-running series--including "Dharma and Greg" and "The Drew Carey Show"--started to lose their audiences.

The compounded effect has forced the network to provide advertisers with free commercial time--known as make-goods--to make up for the shortfall in the audience that they promised advertisers last spring when they sold the bulk of their advertising time.

"Clearly the old direction wasn't working," said Larry Gerbrandt, a senior analyst with Kagan World Media, a research company based in Carmel. "I have a feeling [Bloomberg] is more the fall guy."

Media analysts, Disney investors and Hollywood insiders agreed that Bloomberg was only one member of a team of executives stretching up through Iger and Disney Chief Executive Michael Eisner who made the programming decisions. It's unlikely that a single management change will be enough to cure the network's ills, several industry sources said.

To improve the network's performance, Iger, a former chairman of ABC, said he and Eisner will become even more involved with programming decisions.

"We make no bones about being involved," Iger said. "Perhaps I haven't been involved enough these past few years. I intend to devote considerable time to helping [ABC Entertainment Chairman Lloyd Braun] and Susan turn the network around."

To do that, Iger said, it was necessary to replace the person most responsible for making programming decisions.

"The heart and soul of the prime-time schedule is the series. It starts and stops at program development," Iger said. "Susan and I have had long conversations. We'll try not to repeat the mistakes of the past, some of which I made."

Lyne, 51, is a relative newcomer to television, starting her career as a journalist. The founder and former editor in chief of Premiere: The Movie Magazine was also the managing editor of New Times magazine and the Village Voice, where she edited stories that won the Voice the Pulitzer Prize for Feature Reporting. She joined Disney in 1996 as a creative executive in the feature film division where she developed the Oscar-nominated film "The Insider." She assumed the job of running ABC's movies and miniseries in 1998.

Despite her outsider status, Lyne won over much of the production community with a series of successful projects including last season's "Life With Judy Garland: Me and My Shadows" and the Emmy-winning "Anne Frank." At a time when the other networks were giving up on long-form television shows, ABC was scoring the highest ratings for the category among adults 18 to 49 years old.

"We're turning to a person with a proven track record who has a great sense about her in terms of high-quality programming with mass audience appeal," Iger said. "Those two things can be mutually exclusive, but with Susan they aren't."

Lyne fills a position that has been vacant since the exit of Jamie Tarses in 1999, when Disney merged ABC with the studio's TV production operation and tapped Bloomberg and Lloyd Braun as co-chairmen of the entertainment television group. Lyne will report to Braun, who will now be the sole chairman of the TV group.

The management shakeup elevates Braun, a former entertainment attorney who is known as a tough, bottom-line oriented negotiator.

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