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ABC takes risks with its fall prime-time lineup

The network faces its toughest challenge in years as it premieres twice as many new shows as its rivals. Many of its hit shows are aging and 'Lost,' a cult classic, is in its last season.

September 21, 2009|Joe Flint and Dawn C. Chmielewski

In the opening of ABC's new drama "FlashForward," the world's population blacks out at the same moment and has a vision of events on a day in April 2010.

ABC executives, particularly Entertainment Group President Steve McPherson, may also be having visions of what the future will look like seven months from now. By then it will be clear to them whether the network's risky move to premiere twice as many new shows as its rivals this fall has paid off.

The Walt Disney Co.-owned network, which last season ranked third in prime time, is facing its toughest programming challenge in years. Several of its biggest hits -- "Desperate Housewives," "Dancing With the Stars" and "Grey's Anatomy" -- are aging. On top of that, "Lost," its cult classic, is beginning its last season, leaving another big hole to fill.

Creatively, ABC is getting high marks from advertisers and critics for its fall lineup, particularly "FlashForward" and the comedies "Modern Family" and "The Middle."

"ABC has picked up the mantle for being known for quality," said Laura Caraccioli-Davis, executive vice president of ad agency Starcom Entertainment, which buys commercial time for major advertisers including Kellogg Co., Bank of America Corp. and Hallmark Cards Inc.

But ABC has found it tough to convert buzz for its shows into solid audiences, leaving it in the unenviable position of premiering eight comedies and dramas. Traditionally, networks like to launch new series around established shows, but ABC had too many holes for that option. It is kicking off its Thursday prime-time slate, one of TV's most important nights because that's when Hollywood studios heavily promote weekend releases, with "FlashForward" at 8 p.m. The entire Wednesday lineup is also new.

Some on Madison Avenue, where decisions about which shows to support are made, are nervous about ABC's Hail Mary approach.

"ABC's main programming strategy for better or for worse, and typically it's worse, is to throw as many new shows on as possible and hope they hit the jackpot," said John Spiropoulos, a senior vice president at ad buyer MediaVest, whose clients include Procter & Gamble Co. and Kraft Foods Inc.

McPherson isn't apologizing for ABC's bet-the-ranch strategy.

"I think scheduling is all about taking calculated risks," he said. "We do everything in our power to put ourselves in a position to get lucky, and this year we had the strongest development we've had since I've been here, so the timing seemed right to take a big swing."

ABC struggled this summer to attract a big audience, which hurt the network's ability to promote its fall slate. As a result, viewer awareness of much of ABC's new schedule is low, and the network now must scramble to hype its many premieres.

The programming strategy is also being made against the backdrop of a worsening financial performance for the network.

Within the Media Networks division of parent company Disney, ABC and its television stations saw operating income drop 34% from a year ago for Disney's most recent quarter.

The Media Networks unit accounts for more than two-thirds of Disney's bottom line, although most of the income comes from its cable networks including ESPN and the Disney Channel.

But ABC is very important to Disney because, along with the theme parks and animation, the network is a barometer of the company's perception on Wall Street and in the media.

"Because they have the stars and are flashy, [ABC] becomes the media-centric part of the corporation," said Jay Sures, a partner at United Talent Agency, which has many clients working on the network's shows.

Furthermore, Robert Iger, Disney's chief executive, rose up the ranks through ABC, and so he has a vested interest in the network's performance and subsequently how it reflects his leadership.

"What Bob thinks, and what they articulate they are . . . is a content company," said Laura Martin, a media industry analyst with Soleil-Media Metrics. "If they aren't committed to making ABC work, then they're not a content company."

Disney Chief Financial Officer Tom Staggs, speaking at a Goldman Sachs conference last week, said ABC hoped "FlashForward" would prove strong enough to replace "Lost" and that the rest of the network's shows had the potential to turn things around.

"Going into the season, we feel very optimistic. At the end of the day, you have to deliver the audience. The ingredients are there," Staggs said.

Last spring when it was developing new shows for the fall, ABC put an emphasis on comedy. Although it has had success with dramas, ABC has struggled with sitcoms, which are crucial to a network because they tend to repeat better than dramas, particularly the serialized dramas that are ABC's forte.

"We need to get a foothold in comedy," McPherson stressed. "That's going to be a measure of success or failure."

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