Four days on the job and Susan Lyne, the new president of ABC Entertainment Group, had no luxury of easing into the post. TV critics were engaging her in the type of hazing pro football teams usually reserve for rookies.
At the TV Critics Tour in Pasadena, which ended last week, Lyne, 51, was taken to task for the intro remark that she likes to "win."
An impatient scribe, with the specter of ABC's dramatic drop in the ratings looming, responded: "But if I'm a viewer sitting at home, isn't that exactly what I don't want to hear? Don't I want to hear you say, `I love show business?"'
Lyne, who replaced departing Stu Bloomberg, didn't sing the praises of that trite line. But she did show she's prepared to try to succeed both with the corporate bottom line and the printed critics' lines.
"I also believe in raising the bar," she responded. "We want to lift our network back into first place. I don't do that with cheap stunts. That's not the way that I think we develop long-term success."
Later, Lyne was asked offstage whether the performance analysis from the off-the-cuff, demanding TV critics was frustrating.
"Yes," she said. "But I also understand how exhaustive and pissed off they are of every single network's spin."
Most recently exec VP-movies and miniseries at ABC Entertainment, Lyne proved she could produce critically acclaimed and highly rated movies such as the Emmy Award-winning "Oprah Winfrey Presents: Tuesdays with Morrie" and miniseries like "Life with Judy Garland: Me and My Shadows." ABC had the top five made-for-TV movies among adults 18-49 last season, and the top one this season, "Brian's Song."
But now Lyne, also a former editor of Hachette Filipacchi Media's film magazine Premiere and exec VP of Walt Disney Pictures & Television, must prove she can develop more than the high-brow long-form. ABC, after over-relying on "Who Wants to be a Millionaire," needs an infusion of long-term hit comedy and drama series, quickly.
Whether "she loves show business is irrelevant," said Stacey Lynn Koerner, senior VP-programming analysis for Initiative Media North America, New York. "The question is: Does she have an eye for a show?"
ABC's current disastrous prime-time season caused the network to lose 20% of its audience in nearly all demographics. Comedies such as "Dharma & Greg" and "Spin City" are showing their respective ages and could soon be gone. "The Drew Carey Show" is in similar straits, but may be able to reinvent itself.
Lack of new-program development caused ABC to rapidly go from first to worst among the Big Four nets. ABC struggled to find strong prime-time lead-ins. Modest success "My Wife and Kids," renewed for next year, is an exception. (Mild hits "According to Jim" and "Alias" will also be renewed.)
As Lyne begins the rescue mission of preparing next year's prime-time schedule, she says she will look to reclaim ABC's success with family comedies. ABC cut back on program development as "Millionaire" took off and she says she'll solicit a bevy of scripts.
"It's the inexpensive part of the development process," she says. "You can't assume the pitches that truly excite you are going to pan out. More is better. In this case more is more."
Lyne may be new to the daily grind as a network-programming chief-and the face-off with the critics twice a year and advertisers at the spring upfront presentation - but she is not new to developing stories with her background. She spent nine years as a magazine editor and logged experience in film development.
"It's all about storytelling," she says. "I've done this in three different mediums: journalism, feature films and television. Television feels to me the closest to the magazine business. It is the speed, and there is a reliance on advertisers and an audience."