It's too soon to tell, but ABC may have taken a big step toward a ratings recovery with its proclamation that it would no longer meddle with producers' creative efforts.
In fact, third-ranked ABC could be positioning itself as the new NBC--the former last-place network that in recent years became a haven for visionary producers and the darling of the critics.
"We could have led good concepts astray by trying to insert formulas that didn't work," ABC Entertainment President Lewis Erlicht admitted to the press last week. A day later, his boss, ABC Broadcast Group President Anthony Thomopoulos, spoke of "granting producers greater freedom and greater non-interference."
ABC's prime-time fortunes are not likely to turn around overnight, but the hands-off attitude toward producers is a good first step, producers say.
"It is only smart," actor-turned-producer Henry Winkler said of the network's new philosophy. "Television will only survive if it's made from the instincts and guts and with courage. You can meddle it into oblivion."
Winkler, whose Fair Dinkum Productions will bring an adventure-seeking scientist named "MacGyver" to ABC's fall schedule and the comedy "Mr. Sunshine" to the mid-season lineup, has been more fortunate than most. "So far in my experience with them, they have totally trusted me," he said of ABC's programming executives, acknowledging that his long association with the network as Fonzie on "Happy Days" is partially responsible for the good working relationship.
But for many producers, network intervention has been the norm. As recently as last season, ABC's modus operandi was to meet individually with new series producers and explain, in detail, what was expected from the show. "There was a tendency to formularize," said Leonard Hill, a former ABC executive who now is executive producer of the new fall series "The Insiders."
Last season, programming chief Erlicht told producers of some dramatic series to make their shows sexier and to insert more action sequences, sometimes specifying the exact form that action should take.
Producers of next season's ABC shows say that they already see evidence of the new approach.
"Even where there have been disagreements, they have urged us to try it our way and see if it works," said Arnold Margolin, producer of ABC's upcoming "Growing Pains" sitcom. Margolin, best known as co-creator of "Love, American Style," called that approach "a new kind of enlightened attitude."
Robert Wagner, whose stardom grants him some immunity from network tinkering, also has noticed the difference. Wagner's previous ABC efforts include "It Takes a Thief" and "Hart to Hart," and he will serve as executive producer and star of next season's high-style detective series "J.G. Culver." In the past, Wagner said, ABC "fell in line with the thinking we had" on particular episodes only after "a series of discussions and because of the strength we had with the shows.
"Now they're becoming even more aware of the producer's problems and I think they're more open" to a producer's own ideas, Wagner said. He added that the network's creativity "is sometimes very welcome."
Clearly, the extent to which ABC has been considered meddlesome varies.
"I know everybody wants to (criticize) ABC right now, and I'm not one of them," said Stephen J. Cannell, who created "The Rockford Files" and now has "Hardcastle & McCormick" at ABC and "The A-Team," "Riptide" and "Hunter" at NBC.
Cannell believes that one source of conflict between network and producer is that "very often the creative community has one show in mind and the network has another. I try very hard to make sure that I want to do the same show that they want to do."
Cannell said he "learned his lesson" from the experience of "The Greatest American Hero." That show, which premiered in 1981, started a "2 1/2-year running gun battle" between him and ABC over whether it was a comedy (he thought) or a superhero show (ABC thought).
"If you know what you want (in the development stage) and articulate it, they'll be supportive," said Glenn Caron, creator of "Moonlighting," an ABC in-house production (via ABC Circle Films) that returns to the fall schedule after a brief mid-season run. "And anyone who thinks that NBC doesn't meddle is quite naive. You don't meddle with Steve Bochco (formerly executive producer of "Hill Street Blues"); you don't meddle with Bruce Paltrow ("St. Elsewhere"). But there are other shows where the vision is less clear."
In fact, the tendency for each network to meddle seems to be a cyclical phenomenon.
"We're all best served if there are three really viable places to work, but there never seem to be three at one time," said Gary David Goldberg, executive producer of NBC's "Family Ties." "When Fred Silverman was at NBC, that was a place where nobody could work--not for anybody who wanted to remain sane. Then all of a sudden NBC got well and became a fabulous place to work."
Goldberg, contacted in London on the set of "Family Ties Goes to London," said that he had once openly criticized ABC after hearing horror stories from producer friends. It was a mention of Goldberg's criticism during last week's ABC "press tour" for the nation's TV critics that prompted Erlicht to speak out about the new hands-off philosophy.
Goldberg confirmed that Erlicht had called him to explain the change in attitude. "And I told him, 'You sound more like Grant Tinker than Grant Tinker,' " Goldberg said, a reference to NBC chairman Tinker's policy of staying out of producers' hair.
ABC developed its aggressive approach more than a decade ago, when it became "a training ground for producers," as producer Leonard Hill explained it. "Look at the ABC alumnae association: Barry Diller, Michael Eisner, Douglas Kramer, Leonard Goldberg and Larry Gordon.
Their counterparts at NBC and CBS tended to come from broadcasting, not producing, backgrounds, Hill added, and therefore did not become as involved with the creative details.
Some show-biz watchers note that all three networks began making more detailed creative decisions when they moved their programming operations from New York to Hollywood. All routinely make casting decisions, suggest plot lines and go through every script with a fine-toothed comb.
But giving producers a freer hand can only work in ABC's favor.
"You can attract a kind of producer you might otherwise not have," said Caron. "ABC is notorious for not doing business with the largest range of people."
The expansion of that range is noticeable on the fall schedule in at least one regard: a decrease in ABC's dependency on Aaron Spelling Productions. Spelling, either via his own company or through Spelling-Goldberg Productions, had five of his eight shows canceled in the course of the 1984-85 season on ABC, which has an exclusive on his shows. Three Spelling shows will return in the fall--"The Love Boat," "Hotel" and "Dynasty"--along with two new ones, "Dynasty II: The Colbys" and the "Miami Vice"-like "Hollywood Beat."
How much broader--or successful--ABC's fare will become remains to be seen, but the network apparently is committed to the change. Erlicht and company already have canceled their legendary meetings with new series producers.
"It scares the hell out of me," said Hill. "Now if a show fails, there's a greater sense of personal responsibility. I'm sleeping less."