Brian Frons: Disney-ABC TV Daytime Chief Looks for ‘The View’ to Kill
WHO: Brian Frons, President, Daytime, Disney-ABC Television Group
WHERE: Madeo, West Hollywood, Calif.
WHEN: Wednesday, Nov. 12, 2008 lunch
THE DISH: Madeo in West Hollywood is all but empty when I arrive just before 1 p.m. for lunch with Disney-ABC TV Group Daytime President Brian Frons (my online tardy reform school is paying off). But somehow as soon as Brian sits down, the room fills up. I should have known, this guy can draw a crowd – in daytime afterall.
The day Brian and I meet, the 10,000th episode of ABC soap All My Children is set to air, and he is anxious to see the ratings for Cha, a new Sci Fi Channel series that premiered the night before from his ABC Media Productions (formerly known as Buena Vista Prods.). Some encouraging viewership for his soaps are due soon, too. And he just ordered a handful of new series for SOAPNet.
But really, I’m dying to talk about The View, which just had its best week in 12 years, and now has to transition to life without Bush-bashing.
Outside of the Rosie O’Donnell fiasco, The View has enjoyed more attention than ever during this election season, driven largely by comments by the outspoken Republican on the panel, Elisabeth Hasselbeck.
But while many viewers like me wince when Hasselbeck and her opponents seemingly push the edge, Brian apparently quite enjoys it.
“The View is a show that’s about people going over the line,” Brian tells me. “When (moderator) Whoopi (Goldberg) started, she commented on (NFL quarterback and convicted animal abuser) Michael Vick and tried to explain growing up around that activity. We got all these calls and articles. I called her and she said, ‘Am I in trouble?’ and I said ‘No, that’s great. Keep doing that.”
Coming off of the election week last week, however, the big questionfor him is whether The View can remain as provocative as it was when four of the five hosts were railing against the Bush administration. Now that Barack Obama has been elected, the dynamic is flipped.
“At face value that’s a fair way to describe it but if you watch everyday, both Whoopi and Sherri (Shepherd) agree with Elisabeth on social issues,” Brian says, adding that all of the issues of the election that made it so contested will continue to be up for debate.
And contrary to rumors about Hasselbeck leaving The View for Fox News Channel, she’s not going anywhere, according to Brian.
VIDEO Watch more of Brian Frons’ take on Elisabeth Hasselbeck’s future here.
She’s in the first year of her new multiyear deal, he says. “There’s a lot of time to go. She’s been very public about not going to Fox News and denying it,” he says. “For Elisabeth The View is actually a very heroic place to be, if you think about her standing up to 3 or 4 women depending on the day we’re talking about and being committed to (her) views.”
In one’s own political circle, they’re a star. For Elisabeth on Fox News, she’d be among a chorus, one of four people saying, “Yes, we love Bush,” Brian says. “In a way she stands out more on The View.”
I wonder if that gets a little exhausting for her.
“There were times where Rosie (O’Donnell) was very personal in the way she attacked Elisabeth,” he says, noting that now the dissension on the set is not personal—and it is kept to the show. “What she said to me is as long as it’s professional and when the camera goes off they still care about each other, she can keep doing this. If animosity or anger really carries through after the show then I think it’s hard, because who wants to be around people who don’t like you all day then yell at you in front of the rest of the country?”
VIDEO Would Brian Frons work with Rosie O’Donnell again?
And speaking of high-profile people not going away anytime soon, he says to add Barbara Walters to that list.
“If she has a plan to not be on the air she’s not sharing it with me,” Brian says, calling her a “TV animal,” which he considers a high compliment. “I think she’ll be carried out actually on The View table when the day comes.
Brian is optimistic about the endurance of ABC Daytime overall, even given hard times. Perhaps especially given hard times.
“Traditionally ABC soaps have been emotionally connected, very emotionally truthful but also have this optimism,” he says. And right now, there’s demand for escape and comfort on TV. “Women at home can go to a place that feels good. The day starts with these five women (of The View) filtering the news and the chaos of the day into a succinct thoughtful conversation. So I sort of feel like it may sound terrible but everything going on is sort of good for ABC Daytime, as wacky as that may sound.”
Frons in fact says he thinks his ratings are going to continue to improve. “Most people in my building don’t expect that,” he says.
This is a big change from how Brian saw the business a year ago, going into the WGA strike (ABC soaps stayed on the air run by management). “I didn’t feel this way, I was nervous and scared and still feeling a little uneasier during the summer,” he says.
But as the soaps coalesced post-strike, and he saw plans for All My Children being laid out by Chuck Pratt, who became the show’s headwriter in June, he liked where things started going. Pratt’s credits include General Hospital, Desperate Housewives, Ugly Betty, Melrose Place and Santa Barbara. And while ABC soaps have been exploring real issues for years, under Pratt Children has increasingly incorporated what is happening in the headlines. He cast an Iraqi war veteran and embraced a lesbian storyline as one of the primary tales of the show while the country is debating gay marriage.
“That’s not your mother’s soap opera,” Brian says.
VIDEO Watch Brian Frons on the importance of reflecting “what’s happening at the dinner table” – such as discussion of gay rights — on the soaps. “As long as we’re true to what’s happening in people’s houses it’s OK to put it on TV.”
Brian clearly believes big in shaking things up. When I asked him about negative response to his young duo of Ben Lyons and Ben Mankiewicz taking over the decades-old Ebert & Roeper At the Movies this year he says, “I’d rather have that than a show that’s been on for 23 years that has no reaction.”
Working in TV requires taking risks. Ultimately it is like Roulette, he says. “Ninety percent of stuff fails. But if you see the ball bouncing the right way, you press the bet.”
He’s applied this attitude to his career choices, saying some of the seemingly most insane ideas have led to the most interesting experiences. When he took a big gig with SBS Broadcasting in London in 1996, people told him, “Omigod, you’re going to Europe. Your career is over,” he says. “That turned out to be creatively, emotionally, financially, the best thing I’ve ever done in my life.”
Soon after he left SBS in 2002 to join ABC, he noticed the relationship between Daytime and sibling cable network SOAPNet could be a lot better. So he cleaned it up and the next thing he knew he was having lunch with someone named Anne Sweeney from the cable group. Sweeney of course went on to become co-chair, Disney Media Networks and president, Disney-ABC Television Group and now his direct boss.
“One day Anne asked me to oversee SOAPNet and syndication (the studio now known as ABC Media Productions) and here we are,” he says. “Once she took over ABC we already had a relationship and it was a great fit.”
Brian calls her “an amazing boss.”
“She takes a holistic view of managing people,” he says. “It’s not just about the issue of the day, but how to take messages out to the team, empowering, giving resources, and when things get choppy there’s a support system.”
DINED ON: Much as Brian likes taking chances in work, he likes trying new restaurants. I suggested something new to us both, Madeo in West Hollywood. Friends rave about it and celebrities frequent it, so I figured it was worth investigating why.
My first thought walking into Madeo at lunchtime actually was that it felt a little like a basement (I happened to have dinner plans there the next day, and can report the Thursday night vibe is less basement, more glamour). The food and service, however, is great. When ordering, I was concerned an entrée on top of the garbanzo soup special would be too much. But the server implored, “This is not an American restaurant.” Translation: The portions are not humongous.
Brian took the server’s advice and went for an artichoke salad and spaghetti Bolognese. I followed my soup with the rigatoni. We split mille-feuille (a fancy pastry) for dessert.
Brian’s review: “The food is good, but it needs a facelift,” he says. “Your first remark was the correct one which is we’re eating in a basement. I like more light but it is more like a restaurant you’d find in Italy rather than the Westside of LA. The pasta is really fresh, al dente and tasty.”
Brian has had some great meals around the world to compare it to. His favorite meal in Poland was hosted by a TV network exec who arranged to have a top chef make traditional Polish Jewish cuisine, just like Brian’s grandmother used to make. Friends also once took him to an old chateau in Provence for a brunch that lasted four hours at a table that seated an eclectic group of about 16 people. “It was like a big The View – but in the French countryside and included men.”
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