Eisner Squeezes ABC-Adds Commercials to Prime-Time Lineup

ABC has ordered the producers of its prime-time programs to trim their shows by at least 30 seconds per episode. The order will immediately create more advertising space and should give ABC’s corporate parent, the Walt Disney Company, an additional $50 million.

Walt Disney’s chief executive, Michael Eisner, has made it clear he wants to squeeze more money from his $19 billion, third-place TV network, which is struggling to make a profit this year and is considered a major drag-though one of many-on Disney’s stock, with its earnings-per-share ratio having fallen 27 percent this fiscal year. Meanwhile, Mr. Eisner has had to sit on the sidelines and watch the merger of CBS and Viacom. This new mega-company, which includes its own theme parks and movie and television production units, is a new corporate rival for Disney.

For ABC’s ’99-’00 prime-time season, the running time of sitcoms will be shortened from 22 minutes to 21 or even lower, ABC producers said.

Marshall Herskovitz, the co-creator of Thirtysomething , whose Once and Again debuts on ABC this fall, was not pleased with the time-shaving edict. “I think, unfortunately, it fits into the context of the corporate theory of the late 20th century, which is to bow to the immediate needs of stockholders to the detriment of the long-term health of the corporation,” Mr. Herskovitz said. “Eventually, they’re going to scare away audiences. They’re competing with cable shows, some of whom don’t have any commercials. When an audience has to wait three, four or even five minutes before the program comes back, there’s likely to be erosion.”

Mr. Herskovitz was not alone in his displeasure. Bruce Helford, producer of the ABC sitcoms Norm and The Drew Carey Show , said: “When the business interests take over the networks, they no longer care about broadcasts or that they’re trying to entertain people and that they are a guest in their houses. The balance is, are we here to serve the public or sell to the public? It’s almost like we don’t care as much about the entertainment.”

“It’s amazing what 30 seconds means,” said Kevin Abbott, executive producer of Two Guys and a Girl . “It’s pretty difficult. You’re either losing story points or a good comedy bit.”

“For me, it’s a really rough thing,” said Peter Mehlman, executive producer of ABC’s It’s, Like, You Know . “I need every second I can get. Now I’m going to have to cut stuff that I love. It was tough enough when it was 22.”

The selling of more programming time is just one piece of Mr. Eisner’s continuing Disney yard sale. The company has lately dumped Fairchild Publications on Condé Nast Publications for $650 million and is looking to unload its sports teams, the Anaheim Angels baseball team and the Anaheim Mighty Ducks hockey team.

Related to the sales is Mr. Eisner’s radical restructuring of Disney. Dozens of ABC’s New York employees have been forced to move to Los Angeles or give up their jobs as the chief executive consolidates many of the network’s East Coast and West Coast operations for an annual $50 million savings. He has also merged Disney’s Touchstone Television production studio with ABC Entertainment, where all the network’s programming decisions are made. That marriage-which gave the Disney arm of the company more say over ABC’s programming-resulted in the departure of Jamie Tarses, ABC’s former entertainment president, and Steve Tao, ABC’s former drama development chief.

Commenting on the cuts in running time, Mr. Tao said, “It was a way to try to boost up revenue. You just knew you had to do it. You had to find a way to bring program time down.”

ABC executives argue that this isn’t the first time prime-time lengths have been shortened and that they’re not doing anything all that drastic: With the cuts, their shows will be the same length as many on NBC and Fox. With cable rising, the networks have seen their ratings shrink year after year. To keep their bottom lines above water, they’ve added more commercials.

But ABC already airs more non-program stuff per hour than the other networks. According to a recent survey by the American Association of Advertising Agencies and the Association of National Advertisers, the networks aired a record 15 minutes 44 seconds of non-program time per hour for commercials and promos, up from 15 minutes 19 seconds the year before. ABC aired 16 minutes 27 seconds per hour of non-program material, according to the survey.

Executives on the creative side of things have had to sit back and glumly watch, powerless to do anything about it.

“When I was first involved, there were very hard and fast rules about these things,” said legendary TV man Grant Tinker, who produced The Mary Tyler Moore Show and later served as NBC’s chief programmer. “It was three minutes to the half-hour and 6 minutes to the hour in prime time. That went by the board about 10 years ago.”

In ABC’s case, the ad situation right now is complicated. In January 1998, Disney agreed to pay $9 billion to the National Football League for eight more years of Monday Night Football air rights, along with the rights to broadcast Sunday football games on its ESPN cable channel. The tab was considered way too high and investors frowned upon it after Monday Night Football saw lousy ratings last season. To help make up for that deal, ABC struck a deal in June with its affiliates, in which the network would pay $45 million per year toward the $9 billion tab in return for eight new prime-time local ad slots, among other concessions.

Disney-imposed consolidations and cuts have been fast and furious the last couple of months as Mr. Eisner has moved to stem investor anxiety. On the eve of the new TV season, they have left ABC in a political shambles.

Take the Jamie Tarses story. It was probably the first time a programming executive’s resignation made its way into the nation’s regular news pages. The story had all the ingredients. Ms. Tarses was the first woman to hold a network entertainment presidency. She is also attractive and young for the job-32 when she landed it three years ago. Ms. Tarses was brought in to ABC by Michael Ovitz after winning a reputation as the hottest programmer in Hollywood. She shepherded Friends and Mad About You into NBC, where she had shown that she knew how to program for her peers-affluent, upwardly mobile young adults-just the people advertisers wanted to reach.

But, while displaying that same programming sense at ABC-developing Dharma and Greg and Sports Night -she seemed to live within its corporate culture as if it were high school: She was linked romantically to one of her stars, Two Guys ‘ Ryan Reynolds. They were reportedly very cozy at a network press tour party in Pasadena. And after reportedly denying to ABC president Bob Iger that she was dating Friends star Matthew Perry, she was caught making out with him.

From the minute she started the job, it was rumored that she would soon be out of it. Stu Bloomberg was brought in as entertainment chairman, a position that effectively bumped Ms. Tarses from No. 1 to No. 2 after a year at the helm.

In the end, what ended Ms. Tarses’ reign at ABC in large part was the perceived obstacle she put up to Mr. Eisner’s grand plans for the network, people both inside and outside the network say. Mr. Eisner spent $19 billion on the Disney merger with Cap Cities/ABC in 1996 for a purchase that was positively received on Wall Street. The idea was simple-Disney already owned a content provider, Touchstone Television. Now, with ABC, it would own an outlet. So it could become a new kind of TV beast-a network that would own its own shows. (It’s the same thing CBS’s Mel Karmazin wants out of his merger with Viacom, which owns the Paramount production studio.) But the synergy didn’t really take hold at ABC. Mr. Eisner, who did not respond to requests for comment, had to sit by and watch during the first two development seasons as ABC failed to pick up many Disney programs. Do you think he was happy about that? This fall, there will only be one new Touchstone show on ABC’s schedule: Mr. Herskovitz’s Once and Again . That despite a number of Touchstone pilots ordered by the network, like David Lynch’s Mulholland Drive -which, as The New Yorker ‘s Tad Friend reported, has turned out to be a potentially costly failure for ABC-and a pilot called Brookfield , about a tony prep school. All of the ABC hits belong to someone else.

“Fox has Snoops and The Practice and Dharma and Two Guys and a Girl . Drew Carey is a huge hit for ABC, and it’s Warner Brothers’. NYPD Blue is Bochco,” noted a source at a competing studio. “Everybody’s making money off ABC except ABC. That’s all Eisner wants, and it drives him crazy he can’t get what he wants.”

It doesn’t thrill Wall Street, either.

“I don’t think they’ve found the natural synergies,” said media analyst Jack Myer, president of the Myer Group.

When Mr. Eisner merged Touchstone Television with ABC in an effort to make those synergies come to life, it gave Ms. Tarses a new boss (in addition to Mr. Bloomberg) in ABC entertainment co-chairman Lloyd Braun.

They did not play together very nicely.

“It got very mean-spirited-he loved being able to beat her up,” said a source who was familiar with their interaction. “He would say the worst possible things about her.”

That relationship got worse when Ms. Tarses passed on various Disney-produced pilots in piecing together her fall lineup. Mr. Braun saw her rejection of Touchstone pilots as a blow to the company’s overall corporate strategy, sources said. (Neither Ms. Tarses nor Mr. Braun responded to requests for comment.)

But it’s not like other networks were jumping for Touchstone shows, either. Besides Once and Again -which Ms. Tarses didn’t even assign a regular night-the only other new Touchstone show is WB’s Popular . “It’s not like they had the best product to begin with,” said another source.

When Ms. Tarses refused to go along with the program and often refused to let Mr. Braun in on what she was up to, Mr. Iger flew to town to tell her she had to. Meanwhile, around the same time, Mr. Tao, a key Tarses deputy, was alerted that his services would no longer be needed-even though in June, when he was first alerted to the merger, he was told there would be room for him. Ms. Tarses, sources said, was as caught off guard by her deputy’s termination as he was.

Weighing all the chaos, new speculation on her job prospects, Ms. Tarses quit-though it’s obvious that she really didn’t have much choice.

ABC television president Patricia Fili-Krushel, who was vacationing in the Berkshires when the Tarses debacle was going on, did not return calls seeking comment; neither did Mr. Iger. In a bit of corporate poetry, an ABC spokesman said: “Every new season dictates change. In the increasingly competitive landscape, it is incumbent upon each of us to remain relevant while still providing free over-the-air quality television to the nation.”

In the end, with Mr. Eisner’s new model, Ms. Tarses had to go. Industry analysts said that makes sense in 1999. “In the new media age, networks, broadcast station groups and studios are going to have to reinvent their economic models,” said Mr. Myer. “And I don’t think that vested interests, internal or external, can get in the way of that.”

So the sitcom and drama producers will have to give up some time. They don’t have to like it, but they know they have to live with it if they like being in show business. “It’s their ball park, so we have to play on it,” said Mr. Helford.