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ABC Keeps It in the Family

Executives hope to turn the network's fortunes with nightly 'happy hour'

July 18, 2002|BRIAN LOWRY | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Still reeling from a dismal season in which prime-time ratings fell more than 20%, ABC officials told reporters Wednesday that they hope the network has touched bottom and can begin to see "tangible signs of a turnaround" during the coming television season.

Meeting the press as part of the twice annual TV Critics Assn. tour in Pasadena, network officials also acknowledged that most of the new programs on its fall lineup won't offer much appeal to critics, who tend to be drawn to more challenging and offbeat fare. ABC Entertainment President Susan Lyne said the schedule is, rather, tailored to "what a network audience is looking for when they come home after a long day."

"We'll leave groundbreaking to someone else," said Lyne, who assumed her post in January after her predecessor, Stu Bloomberg, was let go.

ABC is seeking to improve its fortunes in part by establishing programs with broad family appeal nightly during the first hour of prime time--billing it as the ABC "happy hour"--in an effort to bring cohesion to a schedule that has undergone sweeping changes. Lyne flagged one of the new night-opening shows, the sitcom "8 Simple Rules ... ," starring John Ritter, as having "the cleanest shot" at becoming a hit.

Although the strategy represents a kind of return to the network's roots, many TV industry executives are second-guessing its chances of succeeding, saying it harks back to an era that no longer exists, given the explosion of new channels and competition that the major networks face.

Lyne's boss, ABC Entertainment Television Group Chairman Lloyd Braun, said that despite the disappointments endured of late, the network has seen some "encouraging" signs, among them the fact that ABC sold roughly as much advance prime-time advertising for the 2002-2003 season--around $1.5 billion--as it did last year.

Still, that reflects a decline of more than $700 million from two seasons ago, when the network occupied first place thanks to the since-faded "Who Wants to Be a Millionaire." In addition, the network ad market rebounded somewhat this year, making ABC's competitive standing much worse, with the network's sales lag by more than $1 billion behind prime-time leader NBC.

Braun also caused critics to wince a bit by suggesting that ABC would be working to "squeeze every last ounce of appeal out of every show." He subsequently stressed that the network would collaborate with producers and not dictate changes designed to make their programs more commercially viable.

ABC will have a few advantages during the coming season that it didn't possess this year. The network has acquired rights to NBA basketball games previously shown on NBC and will broadcast the Super Bowl in January, which will be used as a launching pad to introduce a new late-night comedy series with Jimmy Kimmel as host.

The network also brings back "The Bachelor," the dating show that delivered strong ratings last season. ABC announced Wednesday that in addition to a version that mirrors the original--in which one man chooses a potential mate from among 25 women--the network will turn the tables with "The Bachelorette," featuring Trista Rehn, the runner-up from the first edition, picking one of 25 men. The former will premiere in the fall, while the latter incarnation with Rehn is tentatively set for January.

After canceling some series with borderline ratings--including the first-year drama "Philly" and "Once and Again," which had a smaller but fiercely loyal following--Braun said the network will "need to err on the side of patience" in deciding whether to stick with its new shows.

One problem ABC faces is that its ratings have fallen so far, its on-air advertising--a key source of promotion--is reaching fewer people. As a result, the network will take advantage of the far-flung marketing resources of its corporate parent, the Walt Disney Co.

Questions also linger about Disney officials' level of influence in ABC's programming decisions, and Disney President Robert Iger was in attendance Wednesday.

For her part, Lyne said the new job is "more fun than anything I have done in my life."

ABC is also amending the much-lampooned yellow color scheme introduced a few years ago, with a new network logo and graphics for fall that the network describes as being "an upbeat color spectrum full of life and energy."

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