ABC Chief to Affiliates: Sorry About That

Times Staff Writer

In his opening remarks at ABC-TV's annual affiliates meeting here Tuesday, network president John B. Sias told representatives of more than 200 stations that, if the third-ranking network were a college freshman, it would have received a D+ for its performance during the past season.

"And I've always been an easy grader," Sias added ruefully.

The results had been in for some time, and they weren't good: ABC, during the "freshman" year of its merger with Capital Cities Communications, had finished a distant third in the prime-time ratings for the third year in a row--and with its lowest audience figures in 30 years.

And, to add insult to insult, not only had the network finished behind NBC and CBS, it also turned in the worst performance during the just-concluded May ratings "sweeps" of any network in sweeps history, according to the Nielsen accounts.

"We feel a deep sense of accountability," Sias said to the representatives of ABC's affiliated stations, who are gathered at the Century Plaza Hotel through today. "We are as disappointed as you are in the results."

Sias sought to assure the group that the last-place finish did not result from ABC's merger with Capital Cities, a company that has often been accused of excessive frugality.

"This wasn't the result of Cap Cities' parsimony," Sias said. "We tried, and we spent the money. Unfortunately, in May, the performance just wasn't there."

Sias, who was named president of the ABC Network Group and executive vice president of Capital Cities/ABC in January, 1986, told the affiliates that ABC's strength in news and sports, new fall programming and a new, more aggressive promotional campaign strategy would help bring the network back from ratings purgatory.

As an effort to highlight its strongest suit, the news department, ABC brought in "Night-line" anchor Ted Koppel, cover-story subject of this week's Newsweek magazine, and U.S. Surgeon General C. Everett Koop for a live interview on the subject of national health, with a focus on the AIDS crisis. The presentation received a standing ovation from the affiliates, who got a chance to pose their own questions on AIDs, drugs and smoking to Koop.

Sias used "Nightline" and its recent ratings coup with Koppel's exclusive interview with Jim and Tammy Bakker to urge the affiliate stations to give more consistent clearance to the late-night program, as well as to ABC's other news programming. (No mention was made of Koppel's future with the show; he said in the Newsweek article that he is thinking of leaving TV news.)

As announced by Candace Farrell, ABC Entertainment's vice president of marketing, ABC's new promotion-campaign slogan is "Something's Happening"--and Sias said that something is indeed happening at ABC. He called the disappointing past season a "learning period" rather than a standstill for ABC.

"Next year at this time, as we start our sophomore year, maybe we'll get a better grade on the May sweeps," Sias said. "It's 111 days until the kickoff, barring a DGA strike," he added, referring to the fall TV season and the fact that production may be delayed if the Directors Guild of America goes on strike when its contract expires at the end of the month. "And we just want you to know we are ready.

"Let the games begin."

ABC News President Roone Arledge, who appeared following Sias, called 1986-87 a "difficult year for all three networks" when it came to news. Noting that CBS received much negative press for financial cutbacks this year, Arledge applauded ABC for managing to stay out of the line of fire of press criticism about cutbacks in the news budget.

"We have stayed out of the press with our internal dirty laundry," he said. "The others created a three-ring circus."

As part of its new commitment to promotion, ABC invited not only the general managers of the affiliate stations to attend the sessions, but also the promotion managers. Usually, the promotion managers meet separately.

"It helps. We're able to see a better presentation here than at our own meetings," Devoe Slusher, promotion manager for WHOI-TV in Peoria, said following Tuesday morning's presentation.

In other announcements Tuesday, Philip R. Beauth, ABC vice president of early morning programming, said that several new personalities will join "Good Morning America."

Kathleen Sullivan, anchor of ABC News' "The Health Show" and "World News Saturday," will fill in for co-host Joan Lunden, who will be on maternity leave from late July until October. In addition, political humorist Mark Russell, fitness consultant Dan Isaacson and sports commentators Donna De Varona and Bruce Jenner will join the morning lineup.

And Los Angeles' own Wolfgang Puck, chef and owner of Spago restaurant, will offer regular cooking features on contemporary American cuisine.

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