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Amid Woes, ABC Vows a Return to Happier Days

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Issues of management strife at ABC have seemingly given way to questions about what the network can do to stem its loss of audience, which has diminished by more than 20% over the last two seasons.

Addressing TV critics in Pasadena Wednesday, ABC Entertainment Chairman Stu Bloomberg and President Jamie Tarses acknowledged that the network has endured a rough year but insisted better times lie ahead, citing their faith in new programs they’ve developed and even the network’s much-discussed ad campaign, whose sunny yellow color and “We Love TV” theme has often run counter to the mood created by the network’s recent prime-time performance.

Bloomberg noted that the twice-annual press event marked a sort of anniversary for him and Tarses, after their arranged corporate marriage last year fueled heated speculation that the latter would leave the network.

With both executives stating that they have settled on a comfortable working relationship, the emphasis now has shifted to whether the eight new programs they have scheduled for the coming season can jog the network out of its third-place standing in both total viewers and the young-adult categories that most directly influence advertising rates.

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Bloomberg--who had little to do with the programs introduced last season--admitted to several mistakes ABC made, including the fact that officials “played ‘Home Improvement’ to death and weakened Tuesday” by airing the long-running sitcom at 8 and 9 p.m. that night through much of the year. By season’s end, “Frasier” was beating “Home Improvement” in the ratings, after trailing the show for three years.

While conceding that the erosion of network viewing has become a major concern for broadcasters, Bloomberg said, “We believe this schedule is going to stop ours,” adding, “I think you’re going to see a real sea change here this fall.”

ABC also defended its handling and cancellation of two controversial series: “Ellen,” whose lead character came out as a lesbian a year ago; and “Nothing Sacred,” a drama about a faith-questioning priest that never drew big ratings despite ample critical plaudits.

Tarses said ABC “gave it our best shot” to get audiences to watch “Ellen” and that the network would welcome an opportunity to work with star Ellen DeGeneres again. The comic has criticized the network, saying it failed to adequately promote and support the show.

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Tarses added that it will be interesting to see how other gay characters are received in prime time in the wake of “Ellen’s” change of direction. One of NBC’s new programs, “Will & Grace,” focuses on the relationship between a gay man and his female best friend.

As for “Nothing Sacred,” Bloomberg said there is little the network could have done differently in light of ratings for the show. Though the program drew criticism from one Catholic lobbying group, ABC has said that didn’t play a role in its cancellation, and Bloomberg stressed that the network “won’t shy away from controversy.”

ABC officials also maintained they continue to seek greater racial diversity in their programming, even though only one of their new series, a comedy titled “The Hughleys,” features an African American lead character. Hispanic groups have also targeted ABC for a shortage of Latino roles.

In another area in which ABC has drawn criticism, network officials contend their ad campaign--which features such pithy slogans as “Without a TV, how would you know where to put the sofa?” and “Before TV, two World Wars. After TV, zero"--has begun to “establish a new identity” for the network.

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Even some of those who feel the ads are clever have expressed doubt whether they provided any incentive to watch ABC, as demonstrated by the network’s poor ratings. Bloomberg blamed that failing on much of last season’s programming, saying of the campaign’s wry approach, “It’s taken a year, quite frankly, for our [program] development to catch up with that attitude.”


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