ABC's Susan Lyne Talks TV Strategy


By Ronald Grover Perhaps no one has a tougher job in show business than Susan Lyne, president of Disney's (DIS) ABC Entertainment division. Named to the network's top programming job in early 2002, the one-time editor of Premiere magazine inherited a schedule in ratings free fall. Lyne made some headway this season: Newcomer 8 Simple Rules for Dating My Teenage Daughter and the returning show My Wife and Kids boosted ABC's Tuesday and Wednesday night ratings. Overall, ABC increased its ratings by 7% among 18- to 49-year olds -- the demographic most prized by advertisers.

Nevertheless, ABC is entering the home stretch of the 2002-03 season in fourth place among that age group. Plus, in total viewership it's losing ground to No. 4 network Fox. And Lyne has had her share of misfires this year: Ratings cratered for The Practice after ABC shifted it from Sunday to Monday evenings, and rushing six reality shows out in February was "a big mistake" in Lyne's own words.

As ABC prepares to unveil its new shows to advertisers in New York on May 13, Lyne is hoping to build on this season's scant successes with more sitcoms and fewer reality shows (see BW, 5/12/03, "Reality Check at ABC"). I recently had a chance to sit down with ABC's top programmer, who was remarkably candid about her first full season on the job and the challenges still confronting her. Edited excerpts of our conversation follow:

Q: So how do you think your first year has been?

A: I'm am not a patient person, so I'm always frustrated at how long it takes to make a significant difference. It would've been nice to make a few dramas work, but we did what we said we were going to do, which was launch some shows that would be building blocks for us going into '03-'04. We focused on Tuesday and Wednesday nights, which is where we've been strong in the past and weren't owned by any other networks. Monday essentially is owned by CBS, and Thursdays are owned by CBS and NBC.

Q: And what's the plan for this September?

A: To emphasize our comedy blocks. A schedule with a lot of comedies works best for us. We intend to have 10 comedies this year, not six. That's a big priority for us when we look for what will make a long-term difference for the network and what will distinguish us from other networks.

We intend to launch some dramas that we're creatively committed to. We have to build the network on the long-term value of scripted programming -- shows with compelling-enough characters that we can write to them and that can build audience loyalty. And we won't have more than two reality hours on the schedule. Scripted programming is the only way to make a network a viable financial proposition, as well as a stable ratings producer.

Q: When you first came in, some producers thought ABC was a closed shop -- closed to shows that Disney didn't produce for it. How did you change perceptions?

A: I'm not going to talk about that. But I spent a fair amount of time in the first months I was here going to all the studios just to say, "I want to be in business with you. We need you to work with ABC. We're open to working with everybody in town. Bring us your best projects." I reached out to everyone already on our network to build bridges where there needed to be some. It's an ongoing process.

Q: You guys put on all those reality shows in February.

A: Big mistake, by the way. Our plan was not to let reality shows take over our schedule. We went into the February sweeps pretty cocky about being in second place. We started looking at the possibility that we could come in second for the season. We decided to go for it, to see if we could build the ratings in the time periods that were still weak for us.

It was really bad planning, though. We hadn't done enough research. We threw the shows on too quickly, and a number of them weren't as good as they should've been. And it also reinforced a sense that we were playing fast and loose with our schedule.

Q: I thought Are You Hot? was the worst show.

A: I was embarrassed watching that. When it was pitched to us it sounded like fun. It was a little tongue-in-cheek. On some level it was going to make fun of or comment on the whole beauty-pageant genre. In reality, once we watched it we were mortified.

Q: You also had problems with The Practice, which lost half its audience when it was moved from Sunday to Monday.

A: We had announced a schedule this fall that had three new dramas on Monday night after football, and the closer we came to D-day, the more we realized that it was suicide to try to launch three new shows on a particularly competitive night. We thought The Practice was strong enough creatively and had a strong-enough audience that viewers would follow it to a different night.

Q: What happened?

A: And then things happened that we obviously didn't anticipate: Joe Millionaire's crushing success in that time period, and there was already strong competition on Monday night. Obviously, CBS has a strong lineup with Everybody Loves Raymond, Yes, Dear, King of Queens, CSI. And NBC had Fear Factor into Third Watch. So when Fox became a third, massive competitor on Monday night with Joe Millionaire, it all hurt us.

Q: There's a lot of talk around town about meddling from Disney Chairman Michael Eisner and Bob Iger, Disney's president. Any truth to it?

A: Michael is an enthusiast. He'll always look at something if you send it to him, and he will occasionally hear about something that's either great or interesting, and I'll get e-mail saying, "I hear about X, and will you take a look at it." But for the most part, he's involved only to the extent that he wants to know that things are on track.

I've known Bob for a long time. He had my job. He knows the network business very well, and he's a useful resource. But he also knows that you can't micromanage a process like this, or it will never work. That said, he knows that he has also a responsibility to the stockholders and to the board, to stay on top of our progress. We meet with him once a week.

Ultimately, we have to be responsible for what we pick up and put on the air. And either it will work -- and we'll all look smart, or it won't -- and we'll be gone. There's no way that can be done by committee, and I think Bob would be the first to acknowledge that. Grover is Los Angeles

bureau chief for BusinessWeek. Follow his weekly Power

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