Reality Check at ABC

Remember sitcoms and dramas? Susan Lyne is betting on familiar fare now

If it's spring, it must be pilot season in Hollywood. And as network executives scramble to find the next ER or, for that matter, Survivor, Susan Lyne is scrambling a little harder than most. That's because she's president of ABC Entertainment, which has the unfortunate distinction of being the least popular network for the past two years -- as far as those all-important younger viewers are concerned. Even though its ratings among 18-to-49-year-olds have increased 8% this year, ABC is still just behind CBS.

For the 53-year-old Lyne, who has been on the job for 16 months, this is a crucial time: ABC, which, analysts say, lost $500 million last year and could lose as much as a half-billion this year, is problem No. 1 for its owner, Walt Disney Co. And this is her first chance to show all her own programs. So the woman who created Premiere magazine and its "most powerful" list, and whose successes in Hollywood include making TV movies such as Life with Judy Garland, made the sensible decision. She's bringing back what worked before: the family dramas and sitcoms that appeal to suburban viewers. If she could come up with another Home Improvement or Roseanne, she'd be golden.

These days, if Lyne isn't asking for a script to be rewritten, she's observing a casting session or a late-night shoot, negotiating a more favorable deal with a studio, or soothing a producer's jangled nerves (or ego). On weekends, when she has the chance, she takes the red-eye to New York, where her husband and two teenage daughters continue to live. In a land where power is often measured by an executive's fear factor, Lyne is remarkably calm and uncommonly polite. "She's a real lady, and that's a good thing," says Law and Order producer Dick Wolf, an NBC mainstay whom Lyne persuaded to remake the crime drama Dragnet for ABC.

The moment of truth for Lyne will come on May 13, when she unveils ABC's September lineup for the advertising community. It will include four new sitcoms and perhaps two dramas. She has already ordered a show about a Jewish Tony Soprano who runs the local mob in Richmond, Va. Among the sitcoms she's considering are shows created by the producers of The Cosby Show and The Sopranos. As for new reality shows, there won't be many. Earlier this year, she rushed out six of them, hoping to replicate ABC's success with The Bachelor and The Bachelorette. But what ABC producers got instead was The Family, All American Girl, and Are You Hot? They all bombed. "Big mistake," says Lyne now.

Her new approach reflects the economic realities of television as much as it does her fiasco with reality TV. While shows like All American Girl are relatively cheap to produce (no star salaries, no scripts), they can't be aired repeatedly, and they don't do well in syndication. Those easy sources of revenue can be substantial: ABC estimates that its current roster of sitcoms could ultimately generate $1 billion in syndication.

At the same time, some advertisers may have lost interest in often ill-conceived reality shows. Says Kathryn Thomas, associate director at ad buyer Starcom Entertainment: "There's no way I can put Taco Bell in a show like [NBC's] The Fear Factor."

Are You Hot? aside, Lyne is known to possess a shrewd eye for programs. Early on at ABC, she pushed 8 Simple Rules for Dating My Teenage Daughter and George Lopez, which have helped the network increase its standings on Tuesday and Wednesday nights. "They have definitely shown some improvement," says Roy Rothstein, a media analyst at ad-buying agency Zenith Media Services Inc. "But a lot of that is The Bachelor. They have to find some new hits."

Just as important as her story sense, Lyne has a low-key, self-deprecating style that has won over some big-name TV producers who had given up on ABC. Their complaint was that Disney often favored its own programs, even if they weren't very good: How else to explain Jason Alexander's disastrous sitcom, Bob Patterson? Meanwhile, ABC's own development efforts had atrophied as it relied on a single reality show -- Who Wants to be a Millionaire. In 2000, its first year, that program alone propelled ABC to first place in the ratings. Then someone had the bright idea of running it four nights a week. So much for that. To bring in new shows quickly, "I spent a fair amount of my time in the first few months going out to all the studios to say: 'I want to be in business with you,"' Lyne recalls.

Taking pitches from Michael J. Fox, with whom ABC is making a sitcom pilot about a hockey player-turned-Mr. Mom, is a long way from Lyne's early hope of becoming what she calls journalism's "great new voice." The daughter of conservative Irish Catholics from Boston, Lyne sought out the liberal environment of the University of California at Berkeley in the late 1960s. She dropped out to work for director Francis Ford Coppola's alternative weekly City in San Francisco. Lyne's first fling with Hollywood came years later: She was managing editor of The Village Voice when the paper's Pulitzer Prize-winning feature on the murder of Playboy centerfold Dorothy Stratten was made into a TV movie. After a mostly futile four-year effort to turn other journalists' articles into films for a company run by Jane Fonda, she returned to journalism as the founder and editor of Premiere magazine in 1987.

Her training as an editor served her well at Disney, which she joined in 1996. She brought producer Jerry Bruckheimer the film Veronica Guerin, the story of a crusading Irish journalist scheduled to be released by Disney in October. But it was her championing of TV movies such as the Emmy-winning Tuesdays with Morrie that made her a hit with Disney's top brass and won her the job of ABC president.

At ABC, Lyne has shown sound instincts about which sitcoms and dramas to back, but she blundered when it came to handling some of ABC's old favorites, such as The Practice. She moved the show to Mondays from Sundays when football season was over: The Practice lost half its audience, and now its future is in doubt.

That makes her decisions this season all the more crucial. "Either the schedule will work, and we will all look smart," she says, "or it won't, and we will all be gone." For the record, she's remarkably calm as she says that.

By Ronald Grover in Los Angeles

    Before it's here, it's on the Bloomberg Terminal.