There's a changing of the guard taking place at ABC, one that has the network's creative contributors justifiably concerned.
Brandon Stoddard, the innovative programmer who has led ABC out of the network ratings cellar, is leaving his post as the network's entertainment president to head up a new production unit for Cap Cities-ABC. Moving into his slot is Robert Iger, a 38-year-old executive who has spent his Cap Cities-ABC career working in the business side of the business.In other words, ABC's most important creative position - the one that calls all the programming and scheduling shots - is being turned over to a bean counter who admits that he doesn't know beans about network programming. Go figure.
"I come to this job clearly with a great degree of inexperience in the entertainment field," Iger told the Los Angeles Times. "I have a lot to learn."
And so, apparently, does ABC, which couldn't have picked a worse time to try to fix a machine that Stoddard has already repaired. Not only is ABC returning from the dead in the network ratings race (it currently stands second to front-runner NBC for the second year in a row after years of poor third-place finishes), but it has a head of steam going into the 1989-90 season. "Roseanne" has given ABC its "Cosby," a powerhouse around which to build a prime time schedule. And the critics are giving Stoddard's schedule the same "quality" designation it gave to NBC when Brandon Tartikoff led that network's re-emergence.
Compounding the difficult timing of the announcement is the fact that we're just entering the most crucial season of the year for networks, during which decisions are made for the coming fall television season. Iger has asked Stoddard to stay with him through the schedule building process for 1989-90 "so he can bring into it his knowledge and experience."
"It's a very delicate time," Iger told the Times. "And the important thing to emphasize is I will not disrupt the process one bit."
But why did he have to come into the process at all? Stoddard has been praised by ABC executives for his contributions to the network, and was clearly the guiding force behind such "quality" ABC series as "The Wonder Years," "thirtysomething" and "Roseanne." But he never hid his preference for the production side of the business (he once described his job as entertainment president as "a little less fun than a root canal"), and insiders claim he was taking some heat for the dismal performance of the network's hourlong series this season.
Stoddard and other network officials have declined comment on the reasons behind making the change at this particular time. And it's certainly possible that it was Stoddard who wanted out, forcing the network brass to come up with a replacement in a hurry. Even so, you have to think they could have come up with someone who wouldn't have to acknowledge to the press at the height of the programming season that "I do not come in with a program strategy."
But who knows? Iger seems to be bright, capable and willing to learn. He might turn out to be the greatest thing to happen to ABC since the alphabet was invented. Still, considering his aesthetic inexperience, you can understand why the Hollywood creative community isn't holding its collective breath waiting for that to happen.
(BU) WHICH IS A GOOD THING, considering that Hollywood just got through holding its breath in anticipation of another crippling strike this summer. Those refreshing spring breezes we've been feeling lately are probably a result of all the sighs of relief emanating from Lalaland, where members of the Screen Actors Guild agreed to a new contract with the Television and Motion Picture Producers Alliance. So there won't be a strike this year, which means we'll have a real, official fall television season come September.
You'll have to decide for yourself if that's good news or bad.