Network President Plans to Restore ABC’s Happier Days

Susan Lyne, the new president of ABC entertainment, was in a

cheery mood. It was Monday, Jan. 28, and Ms. Lyne, 51, was sitting in her airy

office on West 66th Street, mulling over ratings for the previous night’s debut

of Rose Red , a new Stephen King miniseries.

The numbers looked solid: Rose Red

grabbed more than 20 million viewers and also performed well in the 18-to-49

age group, television’s most coveted demographic. Ms. Lyne had already given

the news to Mr. King, and now Disney president Robert Iger was on the horn.

“Isn’t that niiiice ?”

Ms. Lyne cooed into the phone. She and Mr. Iger chatted about Mr. King, and

talked about The Kingdom , a new drama

series the author is creating for the network. Prior to becoming entertainment

president, Ms. Lyne was in charge of ABC’s movies and miniseries, and she had

worked with Mr. King on repeated occasions.

“I always figured one of the things I had to do here was just not

to screw up that relationship,” Ms. Lyne said to Mr. Iger, referring to Mr.

King.

She hadn’t screwed it up. But Ms. Lyne’s network is sure screwed

up. After riding Regis Philbin to ratings dominance in 2000 and early 2001,

ABC’s fortunes have fizzled. The network is currently mired behind CBS and NBC,

and tangling with Fox for third place. Drama and comedy development, shortchanged

during the Who Wants to Be a Millionaire

run, is in rough shape; Ms. Lyne-who replaced Stu Bloomberg, himself canned as

ABC’s entertainment president in early January-steps aboard an operation

thought to have squandered its best opportunity in years.

At the same time, Ms. Lyne

must negotiate one of the bigger hornets’ nests in television. ABC has had four

entertainment presidents in five years-Ms. Lyne, Mr. Bloomberg, Jamie Tarses

and Ted Harbert-and has long been considered a managerially confused shop. With

ABC, the question is always who’s really in control: Mr. Iger, Disney chief

executive Michael Eisner or their entertainment president du jour. Said one

industry insider, referring to Ms. Lyne: “She’s walking into a multiheaded

hydra where the lines of authority are murky at best.”

But Ms. Lyne, a relative newcomer to television who remains

better known in New York as the founding editor of Premiere magazine, figures she can fix ABC by making it a little

classier, and by returning the network to its roots. For years, ABC was a kind

of middlebrow, J.C. Penney network, with a reliable tradition of

family-oriented programming- Happy Days,

Home Improvement , etc.-that may not have won critical acclaim, but

performed ably in the ratings. Though the network did field risky projects- NYPD Blue , Twin Peaks -the ABC sensibility was historically seen as white,

Midwestern and middle-class, younger than CBS, less affluent than NBC’s, less

edgy than Fox’s.

But in recent years, ABC tried

to remodel itself and get a little sexy. Ms. Tarses, a Wunderkind executive from NBC, was enlisted to develop the edgier,

urbane programs that ABC wanted to help it appeal to a younger, more affluent

audience. Though Ms. Tarses famously flamed out, that strategy remained largely

in place under Mr. Bloomberg, with mixed results. When ABC did develop shows

that appealed to critics- Once & Again ,

Sports Night , The Job -it had trouble converting them into hits.

Meanwhile, it was hard to

discern what ABC represented. Quirky advertising campaigns with fancy

black-and-white portraits and odd slogans-“TV is bad”-only added to the

confusion. And to date, nobody understands what Bob Patterson was.

“The problem is that ABC really hasn’t established itself as a

brand,” said Stacey Lynn Koerner, a vice president of broadcast research at

Initiative Media, a company that studies broadcasting trends.

In an interview, Ms. Lyne conceded that mistakes were

made-though, in deference to her predecessors, she noted that such observations

were easy to make in hindsight.

“We needed to have those urban, hip 18- to 34-year-old shows that

appealed to upscale viewers, instead of those meat-and-potatoes shows that had

sort of driven ABC in the past,” Ms. Lyne said. “The problem when you do

that-besides the fact that you better hit-is that you run the risk of

alienating your core audience of people who have been watching your network for

a long time.”

Of course, ABC’s biggest blunder may have been its management of

its biggest hit ever. It was less than two years ago when Mr. Bloomberg and ABC

entertainment chairman Lloyd Braun tromped across the stage at Radio City Music

Hall like conquering Roman emperors at the network’s upfront presentation. Millionaire had been averaging 28

million viewers per episode;  ABC had

vaulted into first place.

Then, of course, ABC

proceeded to drain Millionaire for

all it was worth. The show was scheduled four nights a week, but that proved to

be too much; eventually cut back to two episodes for the 2001-02 season, Millionaire’s ratings fell dramatically,

and its future status on prime time remains unclear. (A syndicated version of Millionaire, not hosted by Mr. Philbin,

is ready to debut next fall.)

Some believe that ABC’s

mishandling of Millionaire has been

overblown; the network knew it had a temporary franchise on its hands, this

thinking goes, and was wise to make as much money as it could as fast as it

could.

But most people, including Ms. Lyne, agree that the network

faltered when it didn’t do enough to build upon the Millionaire franchise, and didn’t create and promote other

successful shows on its strength.

“You take the benefit while you can,” Ms. Lyne said. “The problem

was that we weren’t able to launch any more shows from that Millionaire bubble.”

And now Ms. Lyne ascends to the president’s chair at a time when

network television programming has never been more turbulent. Audiences for

broadcast networks continue to thin, and now that the wave of game and reality

shows seems to have died down, prime time’s future is as uncertain as ever.

But Ms. Lyne has her believers, who think she might be the right

executive not only to salvage ABC, but also to correct the recent tide of

prime-time gimmickry. Boosters point to Ms. Lyne’s picks when she ran ABC’s

movies and miniseries, a list that includes acclaimed projects such as Life with Judy Garland: Me and My Shadows ,

Arabian Nights and Tuesdays with Morrie .

“She’s kind of a breath of fresh air in a doomed industry,” said

Robert Halmi Sr., the executive producer of miniseries epics including Arabian Nights , whose latest project, Dinotopia , is set to air on ABC in May.

“When everybody else-and also her predecessors at ABC-were running to the

lowest common denominator, Susan went the other way.”

Ms. Lyne laughed at the suggestion she might be some kind of

highbrow television savior. “Let’s be honest,” she said, “we also did the Growing Pains reunion movie. I think

there is a place for high and low entertainment.”

And those who have worked with Ms. Lyne said that she is capable

of playing both sides of the taste deck-that she won’t be stuffing ABC’s

schedule with Masterpiece Theatre –esque

knockoffs.

“She’s got high taste and mass taste, and she understands both,”

said Chris Connelly, who succeeded Ms. Lyne as editor in chief of Premiere and now hosts Unscripted, an interview show on ESPN, a

Disney property. At Premiere, Mr.

Connelly said, “we put Cindy Crawford on the cover for Fair Game ; we put Madonna on the cover. We weren’t just putting Wings of Desire on the cover. Susan knew

she had a business to run, and she played the game.”

There, too, Ms. Lyne’s prowess is well-known. Other ex-colleagues

noted her ability during her Premiere days

to woo and finesse high-profile subjects, especially during the magazine’s

annual power issue, which Hollywood kingmakers would lobby to make.

“There is no better training for a career in Hollywood diplomacy

than publishing the power issue every year,” said Cyndi Stivers, the editor in

chief of Time Out New York , who

worked for Ms. Lyne at Premiere . “She

has a very stiff spine and could take it when they threw their hissy fits, but

she never lost sight of where we were going and how we needed to get there.”

That training is likely to help Ms. Lyne not only when she deals

with television producers, agents and talent, but also with her own colleagues.

Asked how she interacts with Mr. Eisner, Mr. Iger and Mr. Braun (who was spared

when Mr. Bloomberg was let go), Ms. Lyne diplomatically said that Mr. Eisner

“has no involvement in the network at this point,” but that she intends to

consult regularly with Mr. Iger and Mr. Braun.

The trick for Ms. Lyne, of course, will be keeping everyone happy

and giving herself enough elbow room to make the kind of personal imprint that

the best network presidents-the Grant Tinkers, the Brandon Tartikoffs-made.

Said one industry insider, referring to ABC’s top-heavy management: “Picking

shows by committee usually rubs the edges off of programs.”

And it remains to be seen how long Ms. Lyne will get to put her imprint

on ABC entertainment. Lately, the job has had all the permanence of a

night-manager shift at Ranch 1.

Ms. Lyne is staying in New York with her family for the

foreseeable future, and will commute to Los Angeles. “Everybody at Disney knew

that the only way I was going to take this job is if I could stay here,” she

said. For the next few months she’ll be reading scripts and watching pilots,

trying to turn her network around and make that little Mouse happy.

It won’t be easy.

“We have a big challenge ahead of us,” Ms. Lyne said. “And it’s

not going to happen fast, or overnight.”

Tonight on ABC, watch Denis

Leary in The Job . The Job is

one of those smarty-pants ABC shows, but no one’s walking around town in a

Denis Leary T-shirt or coming up to you and saying, “Hey, did you see The Job last night?” [WABC, 7, 9:30 p.m.]

Thursday, jan. 31

On CBS tonight, The

Price Is Right 30th Anniversary . It won’t feel the same- PIP is only fun when we’re playing hooky

from work, happily recuperating from the “flu.” [WCBS, 2, 8 p.m.]

Friday, feb. 1

Tonight, ABC has The Best Commercials You Have Never Seen (And

Some You Have) (And this is why Susan Lyne has a fancy new job.)

[WABC, 7, 9 p.m.]

Saturday, feb. 2

On Showtime tonight, The

Original Kings of Comedy. Comedian D.L. Hughley is funny in this

movie. He wasn’t on his ABC sitcom. [SHOW,

48, 8 p.m.]

Sunday, feb. 3

Say goodbye to play-by-play maestro Pat Summerall

tonight during Super Bowl XXXVI on

Fox. Also say goodbye to your smelly Kurt Warner sweatshirt, as New England

strides to a title. [WNYW, 5, 6 p.m.]

Monday, feb. 4

Tonight on the Fox News Channel-now king of cable

television, having smooshed CNN across the board in January-Bill O’Reilly

announces he’s going to “spot” Connie Chung 500,000 viewers a night. [FNC, 46, 8 p.m.]

Tuesday, feb. 5

Tonight’s E! True

Hollywood Story is Olympic figure-skating champion Scott Hamilton.

We’re lookin’ here, E!, but we can’t spot the Hollywood angle. [E!, 24, 8 p.m.]