‘Hey, Will You Look at My Pilot?’ : Brandon Stoddard is president of ABC Productions, but he’s allowed to make programs for the competition too
The production executive was, understandably, miffed. After nearly 18 months of development, his series had debuted to generally favorable reviews. But nine days after the premiere, it was unceremoniously yanked off the schedule. The ratings had dropped 19% from Week 1 to Week 2; with the important May sweeps under way, the network didn’t want to gamble on what would happen in Week 3.
“You have to wonder,” he said, trying to be judicious, “how advisable it is to take off something that is good when maybe you don’t have anything as good to replace it. It certainly does not fill one with optimism.”
An old story in Hollywood? Yes--but with a twist. The unhappy executive was Brandon Stoddard, president of ABC Productions. The show was “My Life and Times,” the first series to come out of the division since he took over two years ago. The network that gave it the quick hook: his very own ABC.
“It feels lousy--no two ways about it,” Stoddard said.
So much for favoritism. Or gratitude.
Brandon Stoddard has been ABC’s point man and trouble-shooter for the better part of a decade now, testing the waters with significant ideas and living dangerously.
As president of ABC Entertainment from 1985 to 1989, he changed the network’s slap-and-tickle image, epitomized by “Charlie’s Angels” and “Three’s Company,” and made it a haven for ambitious quality series such as “thirtysomething” and “The Wonder Years.”
Though less visible to the public since then, Stoddard has remained out there on the cutting edge of the network business, quietly developing an in-house production unit that ABC hopes can line its pockets through ownership of vastly profitable reruns. Stoddard’s job is unique, to say the least. As president of ABC Productions, he can make programs for competing networks--and has. And he can say no to program ideas that ABC may give him.
“Sure,” says Stoddard, when asked whether he has the right to tell his own company that he’s not interested in one of its proposals. “If a show goes on the air, we may have to live with it for five years. If you’re bored with that show or think it’s distasteful, that makes it a long five years.”
His mandate, however, gives ABC first crack at most of his productions, an arrangement that is finally becoming visible in prime time:
The first example was “My Life and Times,” a weekly half-hour drama about an 85-year-old man in the year 2035 who looks back on his experiences. And tonight and Monday, as a major entry in the May sweeps, ABC presents the first miniseries from ABC Productions, “An Inconvenient Woman.” A glitzy, blatantly commercial tale of murder, sex and other nasty doings among the rich of Los Angeles, it stars Jason Robards, Rebecca De Mornay, Jill Eikenberry and Peter Gallagher.
On the other hand, Stoddard’s independence has a down side, as he learned last week when, over his protests and pleas for patience, “My Life and Times” was replaced by “Anything but Love.” ABC plans to bring the series back May 23, as soon as the sweeps are over, but by then the fall schedule will have been announced.
NBC and CBS also have production arms as the networks try to ensure their economic survival in a market of competing TV alternatives. But while NBC was openly dismayed by a recent government ruling that raised the limits of network ownership to only 40% of prime-time programs, Stoddard points to his recent experience as reason to be more optimistic:
“Let’s assume that we could own everything that went on the air. The network would never do that. And they would be right. What drives the schedules is the quality of the programs, and nobody has a lock on the best programs. No studio does. So no matter what happens, you’re going to have diverse sources on the schedule because it’s in the best interests of a network.
“So, for us, even if we had 100% ownership, we’d never produce the entire schedule. We’re like Warner Bros.--we’re a studio. And for us to be able to produce up to 40% is a lot.”
Having produced eight pilots, a series, a miniseries and several TV movies in two years at his job, Stoddard says he’s not whistling in the dark, despite the controversial ruling by the Federal Communications Commission:
“I think Capital Cities (owner of ABC) believes we’re a necessity. This division is the future, I think. It is about the possibility of more income through this particular unit, and also control over the network’s destiny.
“The obvious fact of program ownership is that a show goes into syndication and a ‘Cosby Show’ can make $600 million. But having control over your destiny is also very important. What is terribly difficult for network management is the point when a hit show can be taken away from them (by the producers). When ‘Murder, She Wrote’ is up for renewal, when ‘Cheers’ is up for renewal and can be taken away, that’s when the networks have to get out their big checks. And if they own their own shows, they can control that to a great degree.”
Stoddard reports directly to John Sias, president of the ABC Television Network Group. Is he in any way responsible to Bob Iger, his successor as president of ABC Entertainment, who guides the network’s prime-time fortunes?
“No. We set it up with that in mind. Bob and I are church and state. We’re very close and we talk all the time. But it’s basically done that way so that when he’s in those May scheduling meetings (to decide the new fall lineup, which will be announced within weeks), he has only one hat--and that is the best interests of the prime-time schedule.”
And what hat does Stoddard wear in that period?
“I’m a hustler,” he laughs. “I’m just a guy out selling some product. I’m a guy with a film can under my arm, saying, ‘Hey, will you look at my pilot?’ ”
It is a genuinely funny moment in Stoddard’s ABC office in Century City because “hustler” is the last word anyone in Hollywood would use to describe the witty, sophisticated advocate of some of the best television that anyone has ever seen. In his career at ABC, he has commissioned such miniseries as “The Winds of War,” “Roots” “Rich Man, Poor Man,” “The Thorn Birds” and “Masada” and such landmark specials as the nuclear war movie “The Day After,” the Vietnam drama “Friendly Fire” and the incest story “Something About Amelia.”
But he is no stranger to straight-up commercial series, and at the moment he is clearly trying to get a fix on just what it takes for ABC to succeed in the new TV environment. He has, for instance, signed Nancy Jacoby, former producer of CBS’ “Rescue 911,” to develop reality shows for ABC Productions, acknowledging that many programs of that genre have taken critical heat as exercises in exploitation.
“My focus and my mandate are about getting product made. But my own feeling is that reality programming doesn’t necessarily have to mean exploitation of human misery or bad taste. I just don’t believe that. There are many areas of the human condition that haven’t been touched yet--programming about families, for instance. My instinct says that is true.
“There are basic audiences that like those kinds of shows. They are not necessarily as huge as those that watch ‘Roseanne.’ But the networks’ share of the audience has lowered, and some executives will be happy with a 16% share in certain time periods nowadays. If the share for a reality show is 16% and the cost is not what it is for an hour drama, it makes some sense to program it.”
Stoddard, 54, joined ABC in 1970 as director of daytime programs and is a veteran of virtually every significant area of the entertainment division. He was also the president of ABC Motion Pictures, which turned out such films as “Prizzi’s Honor,” “The Flamingo Kid” and “Silkwood” before being disbanded.
Based on his track record, you get the feeling that Stoddard would personally derive the most satisfaction at ABC Productions from seeing a unique series such as “My Life and Times” succeed. Created by Ron Koslow, who produced the splendidly romantic “Beauty and the Beast” series canceled by CBS, it was literate, well-crafted storytelling with considerable promise.
And while Stoddard thinks that “An Inconvenient Woman” is solid popular fare--"it’s entertaining and it’s popcorn"--he also continues to be devoted to the larger miniseries form with which he is so identified but which networks think is generally too costly in today’s TV market. Noting the enormous success of such long-form programs as “Lonesome Dove” and “The Civil War,” he says:
“A lot of people at CBS probably wish that ‘Lonesome Dove’ was 170 hours long. I still think that when it’s the right story done the right way, the long form is going to work. No show got more talked about than ‘The Civil War.’ Television still has that capacity to excite and ignite an audience and have them glued to the set. We’re talking to a network now about a miniseries that will be 10 or 12 hours long.”
But the television business is so murderously competitive today that it’s clear Stoddard is happy to be free of the ABC Entertainment presidency that he walked away from two years ago:
“I think it just gets tougher and tougher every day. It’s as simple as this: As the (audience) shares continue to decline and the costs continue to go up, the guys in charge of the entertainment division have to swim faster and faster as the river flows quicker and quicker in their faces. And I don’t see much light at the end of the tunnel. That’s a very tough way to go in to work every day. It really is.”
A shy man who avoids the limelight, Stoddard was Cap Cities’ choice to upgrade the image of ABC Entertainment when it bought the network. When he took the presidency in 1985, “I was disappointed with what ABC had on the air. I was intrigued with taking a network and moving it into another direction and what the hell would happen if you did that. Would it work? Would anyone care? It was intriguing.
“I felt that prime-time television was filled with a lot of semi-cartoon, fantasy kinds of programming. And I felt there might be a response from the audience to something a little bit more real, a little bit more honest, a little bit more connected to what was going on in their lives.”
The result of Stoddard’s turnabout of ABC was evident well after he left his old job for his new one, and his staggering output of significant series, miniseries and dramatic specials in the 1980s ranks with TV’s all-time programming achievements.
But in television’s current atmosphere--when many viewers just watch shows occasionally as they zap through a myriad of channels--there are concerns that highly promotable series may get corporate preference over those that are not so easy to hype. He couldn’t help but notice, for instance, the difference in reception between “My Life and Times” and “Dinosaurs,” the hip, heavily promoted children’s comedy that debuted two nights later, to big ratings.
“I have some fear and anxiety about the future of quality drama, which needs time to be nurtured,” he says. ABC’s quick hook on “My Life and Times” “has left me gun-shy. I’m wary of going into the same battle again. If others are feeling the same way, that will be very sad for network television.”
“If you came out in today’s world and introduced ‘thirtysomething,’ ” says Stoddard, “it would be tough. It was tough back then (1987). But now--well, think about the show: a bunch of people, relationships, friends, they work in an advertising agency, period. Not exactly a high concept.”
Nonetheless, Stoddard will continue his attempt to carve out new directions for ABC: “We have three movies in development at CBS and five at ABC and four projects in development at HBO--one a limited series and three movies. We did a movie for Lifetime cable, ‘Stop at Nothing’ (with Veronica Hamel). And we’re doing a remake of (Alfred Hitchcock’s) ‘Notorious’ for them.
“We have five series pilots, all with ABC, this year. We have a pilot commitment with Fox. We had some series discussions with other networks. We have another aspect, too: If a show is brought to us, then we don’t have to take it to ABC first.”
Producing for the competition, however, can be risky--especially if you sell the opposition a hit. Does that make for hostility at Iger’s ABC Entertainment? “I don’t think so,” he responds. “They fully understand the value of selling to other places than ABC.”
One of his top, upcoming projects for ABC is a series of two-hour films with Doris Day. “We’d like to do one or two a year with her,” he says, “sort of like ‘Perry Mason.’ She plays a lady who was an actress who used to be in a television show like a ‘Cagney & Lacey.’ She’s now retired, and people come up to her and say, ‘You know, I got this problem. You’ve got to help me. . . .’ ”
Stoddard laughs. Trouble-shooting has its moments.