Dom DeLuise attempted magic. The Rockettes danced. Anchorman Ted Koppel did his Henry Kissinger imitation. Various TV stars, including Gary Coleman, whose “Diff’rent Strokes” begins life anew at ABC next fall, said hello.
So did New York Gov. Mario Cuomo. David Hartman of “Good Morning America” recited “America the Beautiful.” And the West Point band marched in the aisles, playing martial airs, ending a 2 1/2-hour gala attended by 6,000 persons at Radio City Music Hall.
You won’t see it on TV, though. ABC staged the costly spectacular primarily for officials of its 207 affiliates and the New York advertising community, hoping to leave them enthusiastic about ABC’s prospects of forging back in the prime-time ratings next fall.
Wednesday night’s big show, emphasizing the network’s fall theme of “You’ll Love It,” was the closing event for ABC’s annual affiliates convention here, a three-day gathering notable for three things:
--Little, if any, grumbling by affiliates over ABC’s slide to third place in prime-time ratings--a position held by NBC for nine previous years--in the just-ended season. Instead, as one major-market station official put it, the mood was one of determination, a feeling of “let’s dig in and do what we can do to get out of third place.”
--Repeated vows that next fall ABC will go all-out to recapture the lucrative young-adult market whose prime-time viewing helped propel the network to dominance in the ‘70s. The network, said ABC Broadcast Group President Anthony D. Thomopoulos, will offer programs “that will grab younger viewers and seize their attention.”
--An absence of questions--during a closed-door affiliates meeting Tuesday--about the impact on ABC’s programming after Capital Cities Communications Inc. completes its much-publicized $3.5-billion takeover of the network.
Many reporters expected the latter to be a major topic at the meeting. But all that happened, according to William Duhamel of KOTA-TV in Rapid City, S.D., was that ABC’s chief attorney, Everett Erlick, said that stockholders of each company will vote in June on the proposed takeover and that it would be inappropriate to comment on the matter before then.
Duhamel, a member of ABC’s affiliates’ board, summed up the closed-door session as “a quiet meeting, as these things go, and I’ve been to some real bloody ones.”
Save for its grand finale, the entire convention also was quiet, with no sounds of alarm, and with ABC keeping the Capital Cities proposal low-key--not even mentioning it until Wednesday, when ABC’s top two executives hailed it as the basis for a solid future.
ABC Broadcasting Companies President Fred S. Pierce and ABC Board Chairman Leonard H. Goldenson, each describing Capital Cities’ planned purchase of ABC as a “merger,” also emphasized that they felt the move would bring ABC genuine security in a new era in which the takeover of a network no longer is thought impossible.
Neither specifically mentioned the proposed hostile takeover of CBS by cable-TV maestro Ted Turner. But it was clear that that was what they were talking about, with Goldenson saying that the ABC-Capitol Cities move “insures the continuity of ABC and its freedom from hostile action by outsiders.”
The real focus of attention at Wednesday’s closing sessions at the New York Hilton was not takeovers, but ABC’s fall program lineup, particularly at night, where ABC has replaced more than one-third of its schedule with 10 new series, including the “Diff’rent Strokes” comedy that NBC axed after seven seasons.
With ABC Entertainment President Lewis Erlicht at the podium, clips of the new prime-time series whisked on and off, interspersed with shots of happy families watching ABC and shouting “We Love It,” a chant echoed in one promotion clip by Reggie Jackson, clad in his California Angels uniform and an ABC batting helmet.
Erlicht’s own chant was “18-to-49.” That is the age range of viewers thought most desirable by advertisers, particularly those in the middle range, the so-called yuppies--the young urban professionals and their better-than-average incomes.
Interestingly, Erlicht didn’t specifically promise what NBC Entertainment President Brandon Tartikoff boldly did last spring--to finish the season as No. 2 in prime-time ratings. Instead, he said that ABC has two goals in 1985-86.
One is to improve the network’s “overall ratings performance,” he said, while the second is “to reestablish ABC as the leader in the key demographic group of 18-to-49 adults.” He expressed hope that ABC affiliates would share the network’s belief that “ABC will be involved, right smack in the middle, of what will be the closest race in the history of television.”
Ever since ABC’s slide to third in prime time, NBC, when asked, has said a number of former affiliates who quit NBC during its deep-in-third years have discreetly inquired about returning to the fold. About 12 affiliates, most in smaller markets, had left NBC.
However, executives of two stations that left NBC for ABC--Duhamel of KOTA and James Blake of KTSP-TV serving Minneapolis and St. Paul, Minn., said they weren’t among those making the calls to the Peacock Network.
“No,” Duhamel said. “Basically, we looked at it (the switch to ABC) as a long-run proposition” because his station felt it would do better there over the long run. He still feels that way, he added, even though NBC Board Chairman Grant Tinker “has done a lot of good things over there.”
Blake said there were no regrets, either, at his station for shifting to ABC. “None whatsoever, because the 18-to-49 demographics (of audiences watching ABC programs) have been excellent,” he said.
Even though attention is focused on ABC’s prime-time problems, he said, ratings for ABC’s daytime shows have been just fine with him. (ABC currently is second in daytime behind CBS, while NBC is third.) He also said he thought that the network’s third-in-ratings evening news program is fast closing in on the No. 2 “NBC Nightly News.”
“We have zero regrets,” he said.
Still, said NBC spokesman Bud Rukeyser, the coming season for ABC affiliates “has got to be a pivotal year for them. And I don’t think the season we just finished was a one-season flash.”
And, he added, when NBC holds its convention in Los Angeles on Monday and Tuesday, “our affiliates will be ecstatic.”