ABC needs to land a hit show this fall

Comic Jimmy Kimmel, ABC�s anointed late-night answer to David Letterman and Jay Leno, stood before a packed house of advertisers in New York, trying to help the network win their dollars.

Squeezed into the orchestra section on that May afternoon were executives from Walt Disney Co., which owns ABC. Among them: Chairman and Chief Executive Michael Eisner.


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James Bulliard stars in ABC�s �That Was Then.� The network is counting on this bittersweet romance that relies on the nostalgia of the 1980s to carry its Friday lineup.

Taking aim, Kimmel noted that not only had the bosses given him a program but they also were reviving the old cop show �Dragnet.�

�This is the plan to resurrect the network? �Dragnet� and me?� he asked. �Are you guys trying to get fired? You�ll be out scalping tickets to �The Lion King.��

Sure, Kimmel was joking, but not everyone in the room was laughing.

Rarely has a single season meant so much to a company and its top executives. Television�s cliffhanger drama this season, which officially begins Monday, isn�t whether President Josiah Bartlet is re-elected on NBC�s �The West Wing� but whether Eisner and his crew can break ABC�s fall.

�Obviously,� Disney President Robert Iger said, �this is a huge priority for the company.�

Last year, ABC�s prime-time ratings tumbled more than 20 percent. The network finished a distant third to NBC and CBS, and it came in fourth among viewers ages 18 to 49, the group most coveted by advertisers. Ratings eroded so badly that the network finished the season with only one top-20 show, �Monday Night Football.� Programming chief Stu Bloomberg was sacked.

Shows revamped

Plot lines have changed, scripts have been rewritten. �The Drew Carey Show� has been told to develop deeper relationships between the characters and dump some of the stunts. ABC executives have jumped in to help producers of the new medical drama �MDs� strike a lighter tone.

Eisner, keenly aware of the importance of the network�s greatest hope for ratings success � �8 Simple Rules for Dating My Teenage Daughter� � sent a note to the producers recommending that a scene be shortened. It was.

John Ritter, the show�s star and a veteran of previous ABC regimes, knows the brass is counting on him. �Michael Eisner is in my dressing room right now, waiting to give me a deep tissue massage,� Ritter deadpanned during a break in shooting Friday.

Other new shows on the ABC fall lineup include �Push, Nevada,� �Life with Bonnie,� �MDs,� �That Was Then� and �Less Than Perfect.�

Then there�s �Dinotopia,� a computer animated/live action prehistoric drama that costs $3 million per episode. ABC executives recently leaned on the producers to make the show more hip by creating Le Sage, a sexy, evil flirt.

�I�m too old for this kind of stuff,� sighed �Dinotopia� producer Robert Halmi Sr., 78. �But it doesn�t hurt the series.�


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