ABC No. 1? The Dream Edges Toward Reality

It's as simple as ABC. From sunup to sundown, and into prime time, ABC Television is on the rise in both news and entertainment--the network to watch as the 1990s get under way.

Already cheered for such ventures as "Roseanne," "The Wonder Years" and "Twin Peaks," ABC is in fact cutting a much wider swath through the competition. Both its wake-up show, "Good Morning America," and Peter Jennings' evening wrap-up, "World News Tonight," have totally dominated the opposition on NBC and CBS since the start of the year.

As TV's official ratings season ended this week, ABC was still second to NBC in prime time--but it was also the only one of the Big Three networks that didn't experience an audience decline from the previous year. Its median viewer age, 37, was preferable to sponsors over those of NBC (40) and CBS (45).

And ABC's dreams of toppling NBC in the next few years didn't seem so wild with "America's Funniest Home Videos" turning into a runaway hit and--a big question mark--Oprah Winfrey, the unbeatable daytime star, ready in the wings with her new series, "Brewster Place." It debuts on ABC during the May ratings sweeps that begin Thursday.

While ABC has a battle royal on its hands against NBC in prime time, it is simply running away from the competition in the prestigious races for morning-show and nightly news domination. "Good Morning America," already on the rise as last year drew to a close, was positioned perfectly to take the lead when NBC, in one of the dumbest executive decisions in TV memory, virtually forced Jane Pauley into resigning from the "Today" program by showcasing Deborah Norville as her obvious successor.

"Today" now has lost to "Good Morning America" in the ratings every week this year--in short, since Pauley quit and Norville replaced her. "Today" is also losing viewers steadily, and because of the incomprehensible move to break up a show that didn't need fixing in the first place, NBC reportedly is facing a drop in income from the series as well.

With ABC's Charles Gibson and Joan Lunden comfortably in place as hosts of "Good Morning America," NBC and "Today" may need at least several years to win viewers over to the new team of Bryant Gumbel and Norville, if past patterns of this competition hold firm. And if Gumbel or Norville should leave "Today," it could take longer and make ABC's lead all the more secure.

In the evening news competition, Jennings undoubtedly is benefitting from the fact that ABC's prime-time shows and overall reputation are stronger than those of last-place CBS, where his competitor, Dan Rather, has also suddenly plummeted from the lead. Furthermore, ABC's growing prestige as network TV's finest and deepest news organization--with such other names as Ted Koppel, David Brinkley and Barbara Walters--has certainly also helped Jennings surge ahead.

What is happening now is that ABC is seeing, on a vast scale, the coming-together of the efforts over the years of three executives who helped turn the network from a cellar-dwelling joke to an organization now poised to lord it over all of TV if it can finally unseat NBC in prime time.

One of these executives, Roone Arledge, gave ABC the "Wide World of Sports" series three decades ago, "Monday Night Football" two decades ago and "Nightline" one decade ago. Arledge, who brought ABC a lasting identification with excellence in TV sports coverage--"Monday Night Football" ranked No. 10 among all shows in the season just ended--was ridiculed and criticized when he also took over the network's news department and gave its nightly broadcasts a fresh look that was heavy on graphics and human interest.

But he was no flake. Besides creating "Nightline," which evolved from coverage of the seizure of the American Embassy in Iran in 1979, Arledge built the news operation that now represents ABC, and he remains its president. His finest achievement will be celebrated Tuesday at 10 p.m. when ABC presents "The Best of 'Nightline' with Ted Koppel, 1980-1990."

Another executive whose mark is clearly stamped on ABC is Brandon Stoddard, who turned the network's prime-time schedule into a place where viewers could look--and now do--for quality and experimentation on an ongoing basis. After enhancing ABC's image with such special programming as "The Day After," "The Winds of War" and "Something About Amelia," he helped bring about, as president of the network's entertainment division, series that included "Roseanne," "thirtysomething," "The Wonder Years" and "China Beach."

Under another executive who helped turn ABC into a front-runner, former entertainment president Fred Silverman, the network actually bolted into the No. 1 position for the first time in the late 1970s. But while its shows included such notable hits as "Barney Miller," "Happy Days" and "Family," the tone of ABC's lineup was dominated by a barrage of lightheaded series like "Laverne & Shirley," "Three's Company," "Charlie's Angels" and "The Love Boat."

Silverman, who also helped bring forth "Good Morning America"--an entertainment department series--was a hero beyond compare at ABC, which for years before its prime-time ascension had been regarded with contempt and ridicule by its older, more established competitors, CBS and NBC.

But although ABC thus has been No. 1 before, its image at that time was hugely different from the one created by the team assembled under Stoddard, who now heads the network's in-house unit, ABC Productions.

"America's Funniest Home Videos," a project of ABC's new entertainment president, Robert Iger, is hardly the tone of "thirtysomething" and "The Wonder Years," but it is one of those fluky megahits that often propel a network to the top of the ratings. Curiously, its breakout success is reminiscent of the sudden, fad hits that marked ABC's earlier years--"Batman," "77 Sunset Strip," "The Untouchables."

Imitations of "America's Funniest Home Videos" were expected, but some viewers must have been startled this week to see the following classified ad in The Times: "Shoot Your Family & Friends . . . with your videocamera and KCBS will air them during the 11 p.m. Action News broadcast. Send us your funniest, most noteworthy video moments."

America's funniest news?

Despite ABC's success with "Home Videos," the network began this season with a series far more representative of its new creative mold--a lovely and gritty drama called "Life Goes On," focusing on a teen-age boy with Down's syndrome. Iger has renewed it for fall. And then there was "Elvis," about the young Elvis Presley--a stylish series that failed but enhanced ABC's reputation even further.

The network has so spoiled its viewers by doing the unusual that it may actually face a slip in reputation if it cancels two series still up in the air for renewal--the Vietnam drama "China Beach" and the Jamie Lee Curtis-Richard Lewis sitcom "Anything But Love," a couple of shows with rare spunk for prime time and distinctive styles as well.

And now comes Winfrey in "Brewster Place" as ABC once again offers an intriguing project--a half-hour series set in a black inner-city community in 1967. It will be launched May 1 and May 8 in the choice Tuesday time period following "Roseanne," then settle into its regular Wednesday slot May 9 at 9:30 p.m. If Winfrey manages anywhere near the ratings clout she has on her daytime talk show, ABC could be off on another roll--one that could help the network finally catch front-runner NBC.

Competitively, it's been a fine season for ABC. It had four series in the Top 10--"Roseanne," "America's Funniest Home Videos," "The Wonder Years" and "Monday Night Football." It also won three nights--Monday, Tuesday and Friday. What's more, ABC is taking sharp aim at two opposition fortresses--with "Videos" bringing down CBS' "Murder, She Wrote" and thus putting Sundays up for grabs, and the eccentric soap opera "Twin Peaks" at least providing contrast to NBC's Thursday lineup, dominated for six seasons by "The Cosby Show."

From sunup to "Nightline," a wonder year indeed.

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