Thursday, March 7, 2019

If I Were Disney CEO Part 35 - ABC

"These are the two premier family entertainment companies."

"Exporting American entertainment is one of the things we do very well.  The key is to create it first."

"I feel more comfortable with the two companies together."

Michael Eisner, Former Disney CEO on the Capital Cities/ABC acquisition

ABC began in 1927 as the NBC Blue Radio network.  It was created for the primary purpose of testing new programs on markets of lesser importance and to test drama series.  Following lawsuits and an FCC report, RCA sold NBC Blue in 1941 to Mark Woods who converted the network into just the Blue Network.  By 1944, the network became known as the American Broadcasting Company.  Though the company struggled early on to gain ground, by the 1970s, it began to pass CBS and NBC in ratings.  Today, ABC is third in the ratings, trailing both NBC and CBS by a significant amount.

Capital Cities/ABC merged with The Walt Disney company on January 5, 1996.  At the time, the second-largest merger in U.S. history, after the $25-billion acquisition of RJR Nabisco Inc. by Kohlberg Kravis Roberts & Co. in 1989.

The acquisition, in many ways, was a fairly natural fit.  When Walt Disney and his brother Roy were looking to finance Disneyland, they reached out to ABC, which agreed to finance part of the project in exchange for producing a television program for the network.  From there, the Disneyland anthology program debuted on October 27, 1954, airing weekly on Wednesday nights.  When Disneyland opened, ABC aired a special live broadcast commemorating the park's first day of operation, Dateline: DisneylandThe Mickey Mouse Club also debuted on the networks.  The two Disney programs made 1955 the year that the network was first profitable.

The current state of ABC and its relationship with Disney also affords it many opportunities to experiment and to seek new ground in the ratings.  With the changing nature of television, many of my recommendations will represent potentially radical changes to the current broadcast model, in both large and small ways.

Ultimately, ABC's future, to me, seems to be tied to its integration with Disney and the various brands under its umbrella.

Primary Goals for the Division:
  • Move to four distinct television seasons - Viewing habits are clearly changing and the traditional television seasons need to adapt as well.  There's no need for the fall premier, winter hiatus, spring finale, and off summer pattern any more.  Networks are learning that premiers can happen in any season.  And the growth of the streaming platforms shows that dropping a new season is a welcome event throughout the year.  I would propose moving to four 13-week seasons across the year.  Fall, winter, spring, and summer, each of which can be viewed as distinct units and should be programmed accordingly.
  • 13 episode pickups maximum for non-staple programs - With the four 13 week seasons to plan for, programs pickups should match accordingly.  13 episode pickups would be the maximum for a season then, with many ranging in the 8-10 episode blocks to work around known event programming (State of the Union, Superbowl, Oscars, etc.).  If a program is particularly popular, it could be picked up for two 13 episode orders for the year.  For fall and then spring for example.  This also allows for alternating programming throughout the seasons, important with the brand synergy point.
  • Let the whole season run - With pickups limited to thirteen episodes maximum, and combined with the goal of feeding streaming, the full pickup should be honored.  No more airing two or three episodes and then dropping it.  Air the season out and just decline to renew.  The thirteen weeks will pass and then the program will be rotated out regardless.  This can let slow programs pick up viewership and can help keep a consistency and continuity in the broadcast schedule.  A bonus benefit for this strategy is the elimination of the need for re-runs.
  • Increased in-house production - I understand the benefit of airing productions from other studios.  But, with the variety of production companies that Disney houses, I would prefer to see Disney be able to fully monetize, fully control the programs that air on ABC.  Particularly such that Disney retains the streaming rights, the theme park rights, the home media rights, etc.  Disney is nearly fully integrated and it should be able to make use of the properties on its networks.
  • Experiment, experiment, experiment - With ABC in third place, it's time to throw everything at the wall and see what sticks.  It's time to throw out the rule book and see what the new rules are.  
    • Experiment with sponsorship options.  Is it time to go back with a single sponsor for a program with extended breaks at the beginning and end, but not throughout?
    • Experiment with format.  Does a sitcom need to be 30 minutes, such that a night of sitcoms would be four different shows?  Or could you have three 40 minute sitcoms? This one is particularly important as streaming platforms are truly innovative here.
    • Experiment with show length.  Perhaps it's time to bring back the mini-series.  Could one programming block for a season have two four episode miniseries?  Or perhaps it would have just one twelve episode maxi-series that has no intention of continuing in future season?
    • Experiment with genre.  ABC practically defined the western on television. Perhaps it's time to bring it back.
  • Don't break what's working - there's no need to shake up current staples of the ABC broadcast.  AFHV, Dancing with the Stars, the Bachelor/ette, 20/20, Jimmy Kimmel Live!, Nightline, and Good Morning America all should be maintained.  There's no need to move them or to change them up unnecessarily.
  • Reach deep into the libray - ABC and now 20th Century Fox Television have extensive television libraries that can be accessed to find programming to revive.  Is it time for a new Fall Guy, Outer Limits, or Planet of the Apes? Could All My Children and One Life to Live be reworked into alternating prime-time dramas?  Should Disney bring back The Mickey Mouse Club for afternoons?  I'd argue Disney should get the rights back to Zorro and reimagine it into a new hour-long show.  Disney could even look at the previous Swiss Family Robinson show to adapt its own movie into a television series.  The history of this network and the television libraries Disney owns should not be ignored.
  • Synergize with the other Disney brands - ABC as the free over-the-air broadcast network should be Disney's champion for its other brands.  Put another way, I would always have a Lucasfilm program on the network, whether it be a continuation of Young Indiana Jones or a Star Wars television program.  Marvel should always have a program on the network, like Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. or Agent Carter and beyond.  Sports on ABC should continue to be labeled with the dual ESPN on ABC branding.  Disney should have a presence.  The Saturday morning block should be changed from the Litton Weekend Adventure to utilize EPCOT, Imagineering, and National Geographic brands.  Even Schoolhouse Rock!
  • Broadcast feeds streaming, which feeds broadcast - This is probably the most important component of success for the network.  The connectivity between broadcast and streaming will be key, or broadcast will be replaced by streaming.  ABC is uniquely positioned where it can premier broadcasts of programs that will eventually populate both Hulu and Disney+, based on the branding and content of the particular program.  Likewise, the fact that ABC is free, over-the-air necessarily means that there will be viewers who watch the content on ABC that will not have access to the streaming platform.  Just as theatrical, home entertainment, premium cable, cable, and broadcast used to represent stratified options for monetization of film assets, a similar strategy could be used to maximize the viewership and monetization of television programming.  Could a season premier on Disney+ and then be aired weekly on ABC six months later?  Maybe a shorter gap, perhaps a longer one?  This will be of vital importance to master.
  • Resurrect effective brands of the past - It's time to bring back TGIF for Friday comedy programming.  Perhaps even resurrecting Disney's One Saturday Morning, now used to represent a block across the various brands.  If it has nostalgia, it's worth exploring.
  • Resist the impulse to spin out a 24-hour news network - There is no need for another 24 hour news network.  Keep ABC News focused and on the current ABC channel.
  • Disneyland - A linchpin for programming will be a revitalized Disneyland, now called the Wonderful Worlds of Disney.  Airing at the prime hour of 8:00 pm ET/7:00 pm CT, the Wonderful Worlds of Disney will be exactly like Disneyland was - an anthology program that is part testing ground for new material, part shameless plug, part DVD making of extra.  It's an opportunity for Disney to showcase its parks, its studios, its live events, etc.  It can air programming for Lucasfilm, 20th Century Pictures, The Muppets, PIXAR, Marvel, ESPN, and National Geographic.  It's a place to try new concepts in a hour long format.  It can air company films in an extended block.  
Now, a few ideas as to suggested programming, particularly for primetime.

You'll note the staple programs remain.

On Sunday, The Wonderful Worlds of Disney anchors a night of fantasy and science fiction.

Monday generally has reality programming.

Tuesday is an action block, with a Disney action hour, a Lucas action hour, and a Marvel action hour.  Each hour rotates through programs each season, such that the Disney hour could have a Pirates of the Caribbean program one season with a Big Thunder Mountain western program the next, and a Medfield College mad science comedy the next (combining all the Absent Minded Professor, Honey I Shrunk the Kids, Now You See Him, Computer Wore Tennis Shoes events into one college campus).  These blocks in particular would be good feeders and receptacles for streaming programming. 

Wednesday would be a combination sitcom and drama/dramedy night, with a potential for primetime animation.

Thursday would be all dramas.  Shondaland programming has been especially effective here.

Friday brings back TGIF with family friendly sitcoms and 20/20 to close out the night.

Saturday morning would have a Disney's One Saturday Morning with EPCOT and National Geographic programming.  Primetime would be ESPN on ABC for sports programming.  Alternate seasons would focus on reality and game show programming.  In the 10:30 slot, I would love to see ABC create a variety show counter to Saturday Night Live using The Muppet Show.  Bringing the Muppets back into edgier programming for a little more risque humor, though still in a PG-13 manner and playing up their strength in song, dance, and skit based humor.  It's a bit of counter-programming that I think could be very effective.

I feel that creates a very solid basis from the network to grow from.  With the right amount of experimentation and risk, I think it could recapture a lot of lost ground.

Up next in the series, the new recruit and Disney's home for more "adult" fare - FX.

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