A black-and-white photograph of Fred Savage and Danica McKellar, the teen-age stars of “The Wonder Years,” hangs on a wall behind Ted Harbert’s circular desk.
Harbert, the fast-talking, 35-year-old executive vice president of ABC Entertainment, explains why Savage and McKellar deserve space alongside pictures of his wife and 1-year-old daughter, Emily.
He turns to Savage’s Boy Scout visage. “I was 13 years old in 1968, the same age Kevin Arnold is supposed to be, and I kind of identify with that character.”
Harbert, along with Stu Bloomberg, who also holds the title of executive vice president, and their boss, ABC Entertainment President Bob Iger, are three-fifths of the team that has led ABC’s turnaround of the prime-time schedule over the last three years. The other two-fifths, former ABC Entertainment President Brandon Stoddard and his ex-aide Chad Hoffman, have moved on to other jobs.
Called Teddy by his friends and co-workers, Harbert talks with the velocity of a machine gun emptying a magazine clip. “That show reminds me what it was like to grow up in the 1960s.” So Kevin Arnold is really Ted Harbert? “Yeah, that’s me.”
Harbert’s identification with the fictional Kevin Arnold is an apt metaphor for the improving fortunes of ABC’s prime-time schedule, which last year accounted for half of the network’s $2.4 billion in revenues. The erstwhile Kevin always seems to act more adult than his parents, who often appear overwhelmed with the rapidly changing mores of the Middle America world around them.
Such is the case at ABC these days, which if not yet the overall ratings leader, is in many ways acting wiser than the competition on the prime-time programming front. Last season ABC’s prime-time ratings were flat compared to the previous season (CBS’ and NBC’s were down), but that is actually considered progress in today’s overheated race among the three networks, Fox, dozens of cable channels and home video for the viewer’s attention.
ABC now gets much of the critical praise once reserved solely for NBC. The network has begun again to gush profits after several years of losses and barely breaking even. While top-ranked NBC is seen by many to have strayed from the creative lead it held during most of the 1980s, and CBS looks to find its way out of a bottomless ratings hole, ABC is attracting top producers and writers who only a few years ago wouldn’t go near the place.
This is, after all, the network of “Twin Peaks,” “thirtysomething,” “The Wonder Years,” “China Beach,” “Equal Justice,” all high-brow shows--by commercial standards anyway, which are the only meaningful standards in Hollywood. It is also the network of “Who’s the Boss?,” “Full House,” “Perfect Strangers” and “America’s Funniest Home Videos,” money-making shows that pay the bills for the critically acclaimed dramas.
And next season it will be the network of “Cop Rock,” arguably one of the riskiest shows ever tried in network prime-time: a police drama where the characters break into rap songs or love ballads in the middle of a scene.
In contrast to the programming departments at CBS and NBC, which have tended to be run from the top down by two very confident and autocratic executives like Jeff Sagansky and Brandon Tartikoff, ABC has relied heavily on the input from the “two No. 2’s"--Harbert and Bloomberg. That is because Iger, named 16 months ago to succeed Stoddard, had limited experience in the entertainment side of the network.
Harbert and Bloomberg do not get as much attention as their boss but are the lifeline to the program producers that was needed when Iger, an outsider, was named president of ABC Entertainment in March, 1989. Within weeks after his appointment, he elevated them to their present jobs.
Whenever a new network programming chief or film studio head is appointed in Hollywood, there is usually a rolling of heads and deep-sixing of projects from the previous administration--a repudiation of the immediate past in the way that Soviet premiers would remove the political icons of the previous regime.
There has been remarkably little turnover under Iger, however, in part because he recognized that, coming from New York where he had spent most of his career in sports and network financial jobs, he lacked a keen sense of the inside workings of the Hollywood production community. “He didn’t come in and say, ‘I know everything and am better than you.’ He got to know everybody and is a quick study,” Bloomberg relates.
Says Chad Hoffman, the former head of drama development at ABC who is now an independent producer: “Bob has two very experienced executives in Stu and Ted. He is the first guy to admit he doesn’t know something.”
“I have final call on scheduling issues,” Iger says. “I manage this place day-to-day so they can step back and concentrate on the creative process.”
In the obsessive credit-giving and credit-taking mentality of Hollywood, Iger’s conscious decision to take a back seat to Bloomberg and Harbert is rare. Iger’s name frequently crops up as someone who could eventually move into the chief operating officer’s slot at Capital Cities/ABC Inc. once chief executive Dan Burke decides to fill that post.
“If I came out of this job with no credit but a bunch of successful shows, that would be fine. Taking credit doesn’t drive me,” says Iger.
It is hard to picture a more dissimilar pair than the two executive vice presidents of prime time at ABC Entertainment.
“Teddy is very outgoing and gregarious,” says International Creative Management executive vice president Alan Berger, “while Stu is highly focused on who he wants to be in business with and how to go about getting them.”
Bloomberg, 40, who is in charge of developing new programs, is painfully shy, soft-spoken, wears wire-rim glasses and dresses in the West Hollywood fashion of expensive designer clothes. He likes to play charades and square dance. He sits crossed-legged on an office couch like a svelte Buddha and, in his spare time, knits. Several years ago he had one bicep branded with a tattoo, which he refuses to describe, saying simply, “I wanted to do something once that was against my external appearance.”
“Stu is not the kind of person to attend black-tie dinners,” explains Tom Werner, co-executive producer of “Roseanne” and “The Cosby Show” and, like his partner Marcy Carsey, a former programming executive at ABC. “He’s really driven by the idea of a program and is not political or enthused by the trappings of the business.”
Bloomberg acknowledges that he “doesn’t have a lot of (meetings over) breakfasts and dinners.” That leads some people in the industry to conclude, he says, that “I don’t like them professionally, which is not true. I just like spending that time with my family. I like walking my daughter to school in the morning.” A committed family man, he chose to live in the unfashionable Mt. Washington area because “I didn’t want to raise my kids someplace where there is a BMW or Mercedes in every driveway.”
Unlike many Hollywood hotshots, Bloomberg never saw himself becoming a television honcho. “I went to boarding school and had a huge lapse of not watching television,” he relates. “After ‘Dobie Gillis’ and ‘Combat,’ I lost contact. I came out here to go to film school. I thought I wanted to write.”
He tried, and managed to get work writing sketches for a producer of anniversary and roast-type shows, which were a programming fad in the mid-to-late 1970s. Alan Thicke, who was brought on to produce “Cos,” a Sunday night variety show on ABC aimed at kids, fired the aspiring sketch writer after three weeks. “I wasn’t that good,” explains Bloomberg, with a tone of lingering resignation in his voice.
But through contacts he made working on “clip shows,” Bloomberg got hired by Marcy Carsey, who was then a senior programming executive at ABC. He started in the late-night and specials department before switching to comedy in 1982.
Now charged with prime-time development, Bloomberg takes pitches from producers in his office, wading knee-deep into character analysis and spinning out story ideas. Harbert supervises the series already on the schedule, a less glamorous job than conjuring up new programs, but still important since for every year a show’s life can be extended, that’s one less time period for which money is wasted developing replacements. He is also the scheduling strategist who can recite the credits of a long-forgotten failed pilot or remember which network won a specific time period from a season five years ago.
The son of a successful Madison Avenue advertising executive and home video producer, Harbert grew up in the affluent and leafy suburbs of Stamford, Conn. His chief interest in life has been television. “Obsessed is a better word for it,” he suggests.
He agrees, in fact, that his world could be viewed as a bit one-dimensional. “There are certainly people in this town better read than I am,” he says without any trace of embarrassment. One producer who has worked with Harbert for a long time half-jokingly describes him as a “diligent hustler . . . he reads every script--which a lot of executives don’t.”
The youthful Harbert even looks like “Wonder Years” actor Fred Savage might when he grows up. With a Kennedyesque handsomeness, he sports the Polo shirt and open-collar casualness favored by many programming executives. Harbert knew he “wanted to be a network executive since I first knew what one was at 11 years old,” and boasts that he read Nielsen ratings books brought home by his advertising executive father and memorized program listings in TV Guide.
ABC programming executives weren’t always viewed as such nice people, or even terribly bright. In the two years leading up to Capital Cities Communications’ purchase of the network in 1985, ABC had been on a long bender, a kind of programming version of a lost weekend.
“ABC went through a period when the executives running the place were not creative people,” says Bob Boyett, who along with partner Tom Miller produces such ABC hits as “Full House” and “Perfect Strangers.”
During the mid-to-late 1970s, ABC soared into first place as a result of combining two programming formulas: simplistic, kid-oriented comedies such as “Happy Days” and “Laverne & Shirley,” and so-called “jiggle shows,” such as “Three’s Company” and “Charlie’s Angels,” which featured big-bosomed women and slightly risque dialogue. The strategy was to target teen-agers and kids early in the evening in the hopes that they would also pull in their parents.
It was also the era of Aaron Spelling, who produced “Dynasty,” “The Love Boat” and “Fantasy Island,” three of the network’s biggest hits. At one point in the early 1980s, Spelling’s shows accounted for 42% of ABC’s prime-time schedule.
With that come-from-behind success--ABC was not even considered a network by CBS and NBC in the early 1960s--was bred an intense arrogance. The sense that the network had to control every part of the show-making process reached its zenith when senior executives had to sign off on press releases to make sure the writing conformed to the house style.
Harbert remembers coming in early to rewrite the announcer’s voice-over copy that was read as the credits rolled at the close of each episode. “That was in the day when every episode had to be ‘wacky’ and the announcer had to say, ‘Hi-jinks abound when Joannie and Chacci go downtown. . . ,’ ” recalls Harbert. “Everything we put out about the shows had to be exactly what we wanted it to say.
“Since we were told to be so involved, I used to read every draft of every script that used to come in here. We would spend countless hours deciding what our notes (to the producers) would be and then giving these very complex and complete set of notes on every episode. That was great for me to learn, but it was a lousy way to do television.
“We overstepped our bounds, but our intention was good.”
Intentionally or not, the result was damaging. Jim Brooks and Danny Arnold, two of the most highly regarded television producers in Hollywood--Brooks was one of the executive producers of “The Mary Tyler Moore Show” and Arnold was executive producer of “Barney Miller"--were among the talents who would not go to work for ABC.
When Brandon Stoddard finally accepted the invitation to run ABC Entertainment in 1986, the first order of business was to send the word out to the creative community that the network would no longer shoot from the hip in its dealings with producers.
“We established a different direction that was needed in order to attract creative people who were not there at the time. We had to build a network that put on programs that had respect for the audience,” says Stoddard, now heading the network’s in-house production unit.
One of the results, according to Bloomberg, was that ABC had to launch a “grassroots campaign” and identify young, talented writers, because many of the big names, still smarting from what they viewed as the overly intrusive style of the programming staff, would not work with the network.
“A number of these producers left for other networks as we slid closer to third place,” says Bloomberg. “So our development (during) the first five or six years was really grassroots development, working with people who had not really created on their own.”
Among the writer-producers the network recruited were Neal Marlens, who created “Growing Pains” and “The Wonder Years”; Blake Hunter and Martin Cohan, who wrote the pilots of “Who’s the Boss?” and “Full House”; Richard Eustice and Michael Ellis, the executive producers of “Head of the Class”; and John Sacret Young and William Broyles Jr., the creators of “China Beach” (Broyles had been editor of Newsweek magazine).
“Things began to turn in the mid-1980s, when we started telling the producers: ‘It’s your idea, that’s what we’ve hired you for, so go do it,’ ” says Bloomberg.
Bloomberg’s role in ABC’s turnaround was crucial, since the golden rule in television states that the network with the greatest number of high-rated comedies on its schedule is also likely to be the top-ranked network altogether. All of the 12 comedies currently on the ABC schedule were developed under him.
Although in the television ziggurat of Hollywood, network executives rank several steps below the “creative talent” they hire, producers say that what separates Bloomberg from the herd is his good instinct for character, story and conflict.
Boyett credits Bloomberg with shaping the character of Balki Bartokomous on “Perfect Strangers.” When the idea for the series was pitched during the summer of the 1984 Olympics, he recalls, “Stu said, ‘For this series to work, you’ve got to keep the alien very pure and naive. If he starts to adapt too quickly to the American way, then you’re going to lose a lot of the conflict that makes this series work.’ ”
Similarly, Tom Werner says it was Bloomberg who insisted that the daughters on “Roseanne” not be obnoxiously well-behaved in the manner of many sitcom siblings. “Stu felt very strongly that the kids on ‘Roseanne’ should have a difficult relationship with their mother,” he says. “That idea is very much reflected in the way the kids were depicted. There’s a lot of rich mother-daughter conflict that Stu urged us to do.”
Harbert started at ABC in July, 1977, almost directly out of college. Although getting a network TV job at such a relatively tender age was unheard of in those days, he clinched an interview with help from Stamford neighbor Ed Vane, a top ABC programmer. Harbert’s workaholic habits paid off: He rose from feature film coordinator to a vice president of program planning in seven years.
“If there weren’t episodes for series, Ted would make them all up,” says Stoddard. “He has TV sets every 14 inches in his house. He’s a fan.”
Harbert and Bloomberg have been working at ABC for nearly identical lengths of time--Bloomberg joined six months later. Working so closely together and in parallel career tracks would normally lead to confrontation and bashing of egos. But “there’s almost no competition between these guys. They talk on the phone every evening and on the weekends,” says Stoddard.
How come neither was picked for the top spot when Stoddard decided to step down? “I think you can speculate they weren’t ready. In both cases they’ll prosper from this experience,” Iger says. “And, quite frankly, I don’t know if they wanted it.”
Perhaps not unexpectedly, Bloomberg and Harbert maintain that they were not miffed when Iger got the job. “I don’t think I’m as ambitious as other folks,” offers Bloomberg. “I knew all along it was going to be Bob,” counters Harbert, who denies rumors that there was tension between him and Iger in the first months. “We get along well.”
ABC’s strategy now is to pursue a “balanced” and “diverse” prime-time schedule, code words for putting on two types of programs: those that are critically hailed and offbeat, and those that are blatantly commercial and low-brow. “It’s the same as at NBC when they had ‘The A-Team’ and ‘Highway to Heaven,’ which enabled them to have ‘St. Elsewhere,’ ” explains Bloomberg.
Says Harbert: “ ‘Who’s the Boss?’ and ‘Full House’ are equally critical to this place being successful.” With these types of shows, ABC again is aiming at the teen-age and children’s audience that helped propel it into first place in the 1970s.
The difficulty at ABC these days is to maintain and, if possible, improve the momentum it has gained the last three years. So far, for example, ABC has failed, despite a spectacular lead-in from “America’s Funniest Home Videos,” to capitalize upon that success in the 8:30-9 p.m. Sunday time period.
While handicappers are not so brazen as to claim that ABC will overtake NBC next season, the network has made considerable gains in attracting the 18- to 49-year-old audience that advertisers covet. And ABC executives remember that before NBC won the prime-time ratings race for the first time in 1984-85, it was preceded by an improvement in demographics.
So far, ABC’s progress has been limited to treading water while the other two networks struggle to stop their declining ratings. Harbert says the tougher test will be if ABC can improve its performance in the face of shrinking audiences for network television. “We’ve got to do better than a 12.9 rating (in the season ratings averages). Then I’ll say we’ve done something.”