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Change the Picture

ABC affiliates demand stronger prime and a digital strategy 6/13/2004 08:00:00 PM Eastern

What's the primary issue on the ABC affiliates' agenda? The answer is simple: prime time. After four years of pathetic ratings, all are hungry for a turnaround.

Yet despite a lackluster performance to date, they are cautiously optimistic, ready to put their faith in Disney's new team: Anne Sweeney, president of the Disney Media Group, and Stephen McPherson, president of ABC Prime time Programming.

"I've come here for four years and heard a lot of the same promises," says Darrell Brown, vice president and general manager of KMGH Denver. "I think Anne Sweeney knows enough about Disney to maneuver and navigate the process. Hopefully, they will let her do her job."

For ABC, one big issue on the table is how affiliates will contribute to the network's expensive Monday Night Football
deal. ABC wants help in paying for the contract, but stations aren't interested in coughing up more cash. Both sides are trying to craft a compromise: Stations would give the network more ad time to sell in various dayparts in return for a few promotional spots in prime. Their previous Monday Night Football
agreement with the network expires in July, so the two sides have six weeks to work it out.

ABC affiliates want the network to devise a more comprehensive plan on how to best utilize stations' digital spectrum. ABC has suggested launching a news channel, but the details are fuzzy.

A presentation by ABC President of Broadcast Operations Preston Davis during last week's meeting did not discuss stations' long-term digital strategy, something competitors NBC and CBS have addressed.

The one bright spot for ABC is the improved performance of the news division, run by David Westin. Although This Week
remains weak, affiliates are pleased that World News Tonight
has beaten NBC Nightly News
for the past five weeks. And Good Morning America
is closing the gap with NBC's Today, according to Deb McDermott, president of Young Broadcasting and chair of the ABC affiliate board of governors.

Had ABC's old executive team been running the meeting, they would have been bombarded with questions about prime time. Instead, station managers had to be satisfied with quizzing the new management team.

"Prime time is the biggest driver to both of our bottom lines," Brown says. "But we feel they can fix it. Personally, I think Steve McPherson understands what he needs to do."

For his part, McPherson is putting plans in place to repair the network. "I'm focused completely on the creative," he says. "Every other part of the network—scheduling, marketing—falls in behind that."

McPherson says he will look beyond Disney-owned Touchstone, which he ran prior to this job, to find smart shows for ABC. "Nobody is going to walk up to me at the company picnic and say, 'Great job, we owned all these shows that failed.' Having a strong studio is a tool I need, but it's not something I'm going to be judged by."

In addition, McPherson plans to change the way ABC develops and markets shows. "I'm going to be much more targeted in our development," he says. "Before, ABC wasn't always sure what it was looking for. We've got to give the creative community an idea of what we want on different nights. If you don't do that, selling shows becomes a random process, and you aren't necessarily anyone's first stop."

ABC's fall will kick off Monday Sept. 13, with the series premiere of The Benefactor,
followed by Monday Night Football. Premiere week will start in full on Tuesday Sept. 21, with season and series premieres of all the network's prime time shows.

ABC's marketing, starting this fall, will promote all the network's new shows as if they are events, focusing less on premiere week and more on each program. The network intends to take much of its marketing off-air, using such tactics as infiltrating malls, festivals, and other outdoor locations to attract an audience. It's also targeting virtual places, such as Web sites, to reach viewers.

Says McPherson, "The diminished promotional value of ABC's prime time requires us to take a different approach."

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