Man Without Qualities

Tuesday, April 20, 2004

The Fall Of The House Of Eisner XVIII: ABC - OUT

ABC has long been understood to be the biggest immediate problem at the Walt Disney Company, as noted some time ago in this passage that appeared in 2002:

But Disney's biggest problem - and the division all eyes will be watching this fall - is the ABC television network. Operating income for the media networks division was down 40 percent, because of lower advertising revenues, to $288 million. At the television critics conference in Pasadena last month, Disney did its best to generate excitement about its shows. But few people, including ABC executives, say they believe the lineup is strong enough to turn around the ailing network in one season. Mr. Eisner said he expected it would take longer, but that ABC was "making enormous strides" with shows like "8 Simple Rules."

Disney's president, Robert Iger, and Mr. Eisner have been closely involved in the fall lineup. Executives close to Disney say that Mr. Eisner and Mr. Iger were recently at Mr. Eisner's Aspen home for a two-day retreat and had budgets faxed to them for review.

The Man Without Qualities had thought that Mr. Iger was being set up to take the ABC hit - but he and Mr. Eisner have apparently decided that others will take that hit, despite the "close involvement" of Messrs. Iger and Eisner in the disastrous ABC programming decisions:

In a sign of continuing turmoil at Walt Disney, the US entertainment giant on Tuesday announced a sweeping management shake-up at ABC, its troubled television network. The changes include the departure of Susan Lyne, the network's top programmer, as well as Lloyd Braun, chairman of ABC. Two weeks ago, executives had said they expected Ms Lyne to remain in place, while Mr Braun was to take on a new role elsewhere in the company. Their departure underscores Disney's need to improve the performance of the network, which lacks a hit show and ranks fourth among viewers aged 18 to 49, those mostlhighlyly valued by advertisers. .... Under the new structure, Anne Sweeney and George Bodenheimer will be co-chairs of Disney's Media Networks unit. Ms Sweeney will take control of ABC television and retain her current role at Disney Channel. Mr Bodenheimer will remain head of ESPN, the cable sports network, and ABC Sports. Both will report to Robert Iger, Disney president. Ms Sweeney on Tuesday selected Paul Lee, chief executive of BBC America, to lead ABC Family, Disney's family-focused cable channel.

Is this how things would have gone if ABC had done well? Would Messrs. Eisner and Iger have argued that their reported "close involvement" in programming decisions really hadn't been that significant after all? Would they have gallantly and blushingly admitted that the success should all attributed to Susan Lyne and Lloyd Braun?

Ms. Sweeney is an attractive person who has done a capable job at the Disney Channel. But there is no evidence whatsoever that she has the capability to run ABC. Where, for example, is the evidence that Ms. Sweeney can deal with major disgruntled advertisers? Indeed, Ms. Sweeney's appointment brings to mind the disastrously short life cycle of another president of ABC Entertainment, who was also an attractive person who had done a capable (but much smaller and only marginally related) job, and who was also appointed by Messrs. Eisner and then-ABC president Iger: Jamie Tarses. In her new inflated role, Ms. Tarses soon crashed and burned, and it's hard to know who showed the poorer judgment: Ms. Tarses in accepting the appointment or Messrs. Eisner and Iger for offering it.

But only the two men are still working at Disney.

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