Management shakeup: Flagging ABC faces critical upfront test

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The departure of Steve Bornstein as president of the ABC Television Group made headlines last week. But the true test for Walt Disney Co.'s struggling network comes next week when it makes programming presentations to media buyers to kick off the upfront selling season.

Latest estimates from media agency executives predict ABC's upfront advertising revenue could fall 12% to $1.4 billion from last year's $1.6 billion. Upfront deals are made by advertisers in May and June to secure inventory in advance of the coming broadcast season.

A 12% drop would actually be good news for ABC, media executives said, considering its key audience levels are down some 20% vs. a year ago. Media agency executives couldn't specifically address what program pricing ABC would receive, though many have talked about the entire market being flat or up at the most just 2% on cost per thousand viewers (CPMs).

"If they have a presentation that shows a clear programming strategy, then they are going to get the benefit of the doubt from advertisers," said Mel Berning, president-U.S. broadcast, Bcom3 Group's Mediavest Worldwide, New York.


For the 2001-2002 broadcast year, ABC estimated a ratings drop of roughly 5% in adults 18-49-in line with the trend in broadcast audience erosion over the last 10 years. But the results were far worse, as the network was 15% below that level. As of April 28, ABC's 18-49 season ratings stood at a Nielsen Media Research 3.6 rating/10 share, down 20%.

Now, executives from both inside and outside the network believe if the network can achieve an improvement of at least 5% for this upcoming year, it would mean ABC's net audience loss for this season and next would be 10%. This roughly translates into an overall upfront revenue loss of about 12%.

The wild card is ABC's programming schedule, which it will release May 14. ABC has made it a point to focus on a new type of family programming from 8 p.m. to 9 p.m.-the kind of programming favored by media executives with content-sensitive clients.

"This is a concept that resonates with advertisers," Mr. Berning said. Two new highly touted family half-hour sitcoms that will make the schedule include "Eight Simple Rules" with John Ritter and "Regular Joe" with Daniel Stern.

something right

As part of this family programming push, ABC will also develop a marketing campaign with creative work from Bcom3's Leo Burnett Co., Chicago, the agency that already handles creative for Walt Disney theme parks and resorts.

ABC needs to start giving the impression it is doing something right. Last week, Mr. Bornstein, president of the ABC Television Group, announced he would leave the network after barely a year on the job. Mr. Bornstein, who arrived at ABC after stints with Disney's Internet group and ESPN, oversaw ABC Television Network, ABC Family Channel, ABC's owned and operated stations, and the Buena Vista Television unit. ABC insiders said Mr. Bornstein is leaving under complicated circumstances and that he wasn't allowed to fully manage the ABC TV network-apart from convincing Robert Iger, president-chief operating officer of Walt Disney Co. to let go of co-chairman of ABC Entertainment Stu Bloomberg some months back.

Mr. Bornstein could not be reached for comment. An ABC spokeswoman disputed much of the reports of politics at the network as just "Monday-morning quarterbacking." She added that Mr. Bornstein had plenty to do-especially with the launch of ABC Family Channel.

"It was a multibillion-dollar acquisition that needed immediate attention," she said. "He felt that things that needed to be accomplished, were accomplished." This included the hiring of Susan Lyne as president of ABC Entertainment, and, more recently, Angela Shapiro, as president of ABC Family Channel.

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