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ABC Ready for Smaller Dose of ‘Reality’ for Comedy, Drama

Times Staff Writer

ABC executives rolled out their “Happy Hour” campaign a year ago as a way to boost ratings with blocks of prime-time family comedies reminiscent of the network’s signature shows of old.

But when “Happy Hour” fell short, the network’s programming took a swift and saucy turn with such “reality” fare as “Are You Hot? The Search for America’s Sexiest People.” Although the network, owned by Walt Disney Co., was hoping to capitalize on the success of other unscripted shows, ABC’s viewers, advertisers and affiliate station owners were turned off.

ABC now has sobered up.

“I would give us a slap on the face for doing all this reality stuff,” said ABC Entertainment Chairman Lloyd Braun, who is responsible for the network’s prime-time schedule. “I plead guilty to the charge that we were inconsistent with our strategy.”

The network was emboldened by the November success of its unscripted “The Bachelor,” Braun said, adding: “Sometimes, when you are on a roll, you stay at the craps table too long.”

Two years ago, ABC was widely criticized for gambling too much on “Who Wants to Be a Millionaire.” When the game show became a runaway hit, ABC began airing it four nights a week, burning it out and singeing the network’s ratings.

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Although some TV analysts and advertisers say ABC repeated the mistake by saturating its schedule with unscripted shows, Braun insisted in an interview that the network was simply trying to fill gaps created by failed programs.

“The lesson is that you can’t fix everything at once,” he said. “We have to exercise a little more patience.”

To that end, ABC is reshaping its schedule again in what has become a perennial struggle to attract viewers and woo advertisers. The network will announce its fall lineup next month in New York, when advertisers will begin buying commercial time for the season.

Last year, Braun said, the network expended too much energy producing “Happy Hour” comedies to fill five nights a week between 8 and 9 p.m. That marketing strategy forced the network into scheduling and developing shows built around a slogan, he said.

“You can’t be rigid,” he said. “You’ve got to be very careful not to put a straitjacket on your schedule.”

With “Happy Hour,” network executives wanted to deliver a message that ABC had found its way home, back to a time when ABC thrived with such wholesome hits as “Happy Days” and “Laverne & Shirley” in the ‘70s, “Roseanne” in the late ‘80s and “Home Improvement” in the ‘90s. No longer, ABC executives promised, would the network try to copy NBC’s success with edgy urban comedies.

The problem was not so much with the concept as with ABC’s ability to sustain it across its Monday through Friday lineup.

ABC simply needed more well-received comedies such as “George Lopez,” “8 Simple Rules for Dating My Teenage Daughter,” with John Ritter, “According to Jim,” with Jim Belushi, and “My Wife and Kids,” with Damon Wayans.

In coming weeks, Braun said, the emphasis not only will be on selecting more comedies but also on finding dramas for the crucial 10 p.m. slot. That highly competitive hour of TV helps pull viewers into news programs produced by local stations that depend on the considerable ad dollars.

“The affiliates consider this to be a big priority, and a big concern,” Bruce Baker, vice president of Cox Television and chairman of the board of ABC affiliate stations.

Currently, ABC’s only 10 p.m. dramas are the long-running “NYPD Blue” and the remake of “Dragnet.” The network, in a controversial move, switched its other successful 10 p.m. drama -- “The Practice” -- to an earlier time and another night.

Despite the problems, many say ABC has fulfilled its pledge to end the network’s steep ratings slide.

“ABC has a lot of holes that they need to fill, but they don’t have nearly as many problems as they did a year ago,” said Steve Sternberg, senior vice president for research at advertising-buying firm Magna Global. “They’ve basically stabilized.”

With four weeks remaining in the season, ABC is in third place among the six major networks for overall prime-time viewers. The network has increased its total audience by 4% compared with this time last year. Most of those gains, however, can be attributed to the huge audience for ABC’s broadcast of the Super Bowl in January. Without factoring in the game’s viewers, ABC’s ratings would be down 1% compared with a year ago.

The picture is brighter among the younger viewers whom advertisers pay most to reach. Among viewers ages 18 to 49, ABC is up 6% in prime time, locked in a tight race with CBS for third place. ABC also has watched its 18- to 34-year-old audience grow by 10% this season, fueled by the popularity of “The Bachelor” and “The Bachelorette.”

What’s more, Braun’s late-night gambit, “Jimmy Kimmel Live,” is making money after three months, a feat its predecessor, “Politically Incorrect,” never accomplished. During the February sweeps in markets including New York and Chicago, Kimmel pulled in more young male viewers than the last half-hour of NBC’s “Tonight Show With Jay Leno” and CBS’ “Late Show With David Letterman.”

“ABC is starting to do marginally better,” said Mike Drexler, chief executive of advertising-buying firm Optimedia International. “They are making some progress.”

Braun tends to see it in more dramatic terms.

“Last year at this time, we felt like we were trying to stop an avalanche,” he said. “This year we’re just plugging holes. And in two or three years, we’ll be down to a lot fewer problems.”


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