How ABC Could Salvage Its Season

The network is running a distant No. 3 now. However, it just might have enough going for it to gain viewers -- and save Eisner's job?

By Ronald Grover

Yes, that was Michael Eisner getting doused with champagne in the Anaheim Angels' locker room. Wearing an Angels cap and a Goofy grin, the Walt Disney chairman was clearly enjoying the Disney-owned team's 13-5 victory over the Minnesota Twins. That win sent the home team to the World Series -- and oddsmakers say the Angels have a pretty fair chance of beating the San Francisco Giants.

Still, even a World Series trophy would be small potatoes compared to the prize Eisner really wants -- and needs: conclusive evidence that Disney's money-losing, ratings-challenged ABC network is on the mend. For weeks now, insiders have been saying Coach Eisner's fate is inexorably tied to that of the network. In 2001, it lost more than $250 million.

Without the inklings of a turnaround by, say, December, Eisner could be in serious trouble, according to one Disney board member. And if the network has a repeat of last year's disaster -- when its ratings fell by an ugly 22% -- Disney might well be looking for a new No. 1.

CLOSER TO FOURTH.

  A quick glance at the scoreboard suggests that things aren't going Eisner's way. Ratings at ABC are off 8% among overall viewers, according to the latest Nielsen Media numbers. That's twice NBC's loss -- and really embarrassing when you consider both CBS and Fox have viewership gains. ABC is running a distant third to CBS and NBC, which will duke it out for the top spot. In fact, ABC is closer to fourth place Fox than it is to the top two.

However, TV ratings are tougher to read than the maddening signals a third-base coach sends to a hitter. And a closer look at the numbers reveals that ABC may just be in an early-inning rally. Among viewers 18- to 49-years-old -- the ones advertisers want to reach -- ABC is off by 7%, but then so are both Fox and NBC. And for the first time in a long time, ABC actually has a few hits. A revived Monday Night Football is having its best showing in years, thanks to John Madden and his hyperactive chalkboard.

The network is also doing well on Tuesdays, a problem night for both CBS and NBC. On that night, ABC has its biggest new sitcom in years, John Ritter's 8 Simple Rules for Dating My Teenage Daughter, which is winning its 8 p.m. time slot. That show has helped push the three other Tuesday sitcoms -- According to Jim, Life with Bonnie, and Less than Perfect -- to decent showings as well.

And on Wednesday, ABC is running a respectable second or third for the night, boosted by the second installment of The Bachelor and the sitcoms My Wife and Kids and The George Lopez Show.

SHREWD MOVES.

  Disney may have found a new slugger in Susan Lyne, the one-time magazine editor who now heads ABC's programming efforts. Although some of these shows were developed before Lyne arrived, she has definitely helped breathe new life into some of the older shows that looked like they were destined to be permanent bench-warmers. ABC has recently managed to squeeze decent numbers out of old-timers NYPD Blue on Tuesdays and The Practice on Sundays.

Among Lyne's shrewd moves: Picking up the quirky detective show Monk, which the Disney studio was producing for USA Network. Monk has done modestly well in the 18-to-49 age group on Thursdays, where it's up against NBC's and CBS's heavy hitters. But ABC is moving the show to Mondays, where execs figure it'll appeal to those over 35 who don't want to watch Boston Public on Fox or the CBS comedies King of Queens and Yes, Dear.

It was also wise to quickly cancel two bombs -- Push, Nevada on Thursday and Friday's That Was Then, says Laura Caraccioli, a vice-president of media-buying firm Starcom Entertainment. Caraccioli also applauds Lyne's decision to move The Drew Carey Show and Whose Line Is It Anyway?, which were tanking on Mondays, to Friday night. They'll follow America's Funniest Home Videos, which ABC hopes will deliver a simpatico audience for Carey & Co.

COORDINATED BLITZ.

  Perhaps Disney's most impressive accomplishment this season was getting anyone to know it even has new shows. With its viewership so far down, ABC wasn't getting enough folks in front of the tube at any one time to promote its offerings. So it used its legendary marketing muscle to pull out all the stops.

On orders from Eisner, every part of his far-flung empire pitched in to help boost the network. That meant sending Drew Carey, John Ritter, and other ABC starts to Anaheim, where they shook hands with visitors at Disney's California Adventure theme park. ESPN was littered with ads for Alias and other shows that appeal to younger men, and ABC's Monday Night Football games were filled with spots for its Tuesday-night comedies. Spots for Alias and The Practice even started showing up in movie theaters, before Disney-produced movies.

"With so few people watching ABC, they couldn't use their own air to promote their shows, so they had to do the next best thing," says Roy Rothstein, a vice-president at media-buying firm Zenith Media. Rothstein figures this will be an up year for ABC. He points out that the network has stopped hemorrhaging younger viewers, who last year fled after ABC overdosed on Regis Philbin's Who Wants to be a Millionaire? The axiom among network executives is that younger viewers usually find the hit shows first, so that may mean good things down the road for some of ABC's newer programming.

FOX BOUNCE?

  Still, as Yogi Berra said, it ain't over till it's over. And, while folks at Disney are churning out the hyperbole in a steady flow of press releases, ABC could still fall apart this year. For starters, Fox won't begin airing its regular season until late October, when it finishes with the World Series.

That will likely lure younger viewers away from some of ABC's shows. Some of the audience for My Wife and Kids will likely head to The Bernie Mac Show, and younger women may dump The Bachelor for Fox's Fastlane, predicts an executive at another network. Already, ABC's Life with Bonnie has slipped a little in the ratings, while a couple of blowout games could savage ratings for Monday Night Football.

At least ABC has a rooting section. "A stronger ABC makes all of broadcast TV better," says ad buyer Andrew Donchin, a senior vice-president with ad agency Carat USA. With ABC in the game, NBC and CBS can't strongarm Radio Shack and other Carat clients on ad rates.

As for a turnaround, ABC is nowhere near the seventh-inning stretch. Eisner has properly set a low target this year, telling analysts it will take more than a single season to put ABC back into serious contention. No one at Disney is pulling out any champagne yet over ABC's small victories. Still, with a couple of hit shows, the beleaguered network just might get back in the game. That would give Chairman Eisner something to pop a cork over.

Grover is Los Angeles bureau chief for BusinessWeek. Follow his weekly Power Lunch column, only on BusinessWeek Online

Edited by Patricia O'Connell

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