For the second time in a year, ABC Inc. has established a forced partnership to run its entertainment division, again leaving the parties to awkwardly profess their mutual admiration.
On Wednesday, ABC announced the appointment of Stuart Bloomberg, 47, as chairman of ABC Entertainment, placing him over division president Jamie Tarses, 33. Whether the partnership will work remains to be seen.
But the larger issue is how quickly Bloomberg and his boss, ABC Inc. President Robert Iger, can realistically expect to achieve progress with ABC’s prime-time schedule, and how patient Michael Eisner, chairman of network parent Walt Disney Co., will be.
ABC was in first place when Disney agreed to acquire the network in 1995 but has watched its ratings and competitive standing in comparison with the other networks suffer since then. Bolstering the network has become a priority, prompting Iger to install Bloomberg.
The network has already announced a quick-fix approach to the coming TV season, scheduling 10 new series in an effort to increase its chances to score a much-needed hit. Prime-time handicappers, however, question that strategy, citing the historic difficulty in getting viewers to absorb that much change.
Industry sources, meanwhile, are marveling at the network’s continued mishandling of major management changes.
A year ago, Tarses joined then-ABC Entertainment Chairman Ted Harbert at ABC after Disney and network executives courted her without consulting him. Now Bloomberg, Harbert’s longtime friend and co-worker, becomes Tarses’ boss--a decision she learned about after the news leaked out and despite recent network denials.
Moreover, both Bloomberg and Tarses are ace program developers with limited enthusiasm for other aspects of the job, meaning their primary talents appear to overlap.
“At least with Ted and Jamie, you could sit back and say: ‘Oh, I get it. It’s complementary skills,’ ” one studio executive said. “Here, [they’re] the same person.”
In an interview, Bloomberg dismissed that notion, pointing out that he and Tarses bring their own point of view to the creative process.
“I’m not sure in a business where programming is key that having two people whose strengths are in that particular area is a bad thing,” he said.
While ABC’s handling of the Tarses-Harbert situation was largely blamed on former Disney President Michael Ovitz, sources attribute the latest move to pressure from Eisner and Iger’s determination not to let Bloomberg wind up elsewhere.
A 19-year ABC veteran, Bloomberg worked under Iger when he ran ABC Entertainment, and Eisner is said to have admired his ability to develop the sort of popular family programs favored by Disney. A movie revival of “The Wonderful World of Disney” will premiere on ABC in September.
Tarses had no comment beyond a statement issued by the network in which she called it “a privilege” to work with Bloomberg.
Sources say Tarses was already unhappy about the level of micro-management by Iger and Eisner as well as the media grilling she feels she’s received. Some sources said she inherited problems that can’t be fixed overnight and wasn’t allowed to air a single program she developed before being given a new boss.
Still, the consensus is she’ll bide her time before deciding whether to leave, willing to see whether the collaboration with Bloomberg can work. In addition, ABC apparently would not be obligated to pay off her contract (understood to be worth more than $1 million a year) if she chose to quit now.
Bloomberg comfortably stayed in the background as part of the team responsible for ABC’s success in the early 1990s, before various misfires resulted in its current slide, and he doesn’t relish the spotlight that will shine on him now.
“I really missed the creative process,” he said regarding the two years during which he’s worked in a corporate capacity in New York, "[and] I kind of felt there was a circle in my ABC career that needed completing.”
Because of the appointment’s timing, Bloomberg’s input will be limited in terms of the fall lineup, which is largely complete.
As for an overarching plan, Bloomberg said a network is “defined by the programs it puts on,” noting that NBC formulated its strategy of offering hip young-adult comedies after laying the groundwork with such shows as “Mad About You” and “Frasier"--programs Tarses helped develop during her tenure there.