Magazine article Variety

Is ABC on a New Route Inside the Magic Kingdom?

Magazine article Variety

Is ABC on a New Route Inside the Magic Kingdom?

Article excerpt

The 0&0s' challenge of filling the post-Oprah void raises bigger questions for the Alphabet

I started out looking for a needle in a haystack before realizing the real story was the state of the haystack.

I initially set my sights on answering the question of what ABC's eight O&O stations plan to do next year with the key time period (the lucrative 3 p.m. news lead-in slot in most markets) now occupied by Katie Couric's Disney-distributed syndicated talkshow.

The consensus in the biz is that the show is a goner after this season - not for lack of effort or investment but simply because Couric's hardnewsy reporting and interviewing style was not a good fit with the Monday-Friday daytime routine crowd. Ratings for season two are trending down, not up, in ABC's key O&O markets. Couric also had a hard time finding her place at ABC News, which spurred her to end that portion of her Disney deal and decamp for Yahoo next month.

Give Couric some credit on the daytime show for not going the sleazy who's-your-baby-daddy route. Yet she earned demerits in the eyes of some station affiliates for a perceived indifference to the stiffness of the show. In syndication, when you lose your g.m.'s in flyover country, you got problems.

But the more questions I asked about the fate of a single time period, the more questions were raised about the status of ABC overall within the Disney empire.

By any measure, these are boom times for the Magic Kingdom. Disney's investments in boldface brands like Marvel and Pixar are paying the expected dividends, as Lucasfilm undoubtedly will in quarters to come. ESPN is a money-minting machine, even if the margins are getting squeezed by higher sports programming costs.

Disney-branded cablers are blooming overseas, while at home the channels' star-making system feeds the multiplatform ambitions of the corporate mothership like no other. (A typical trajectory: Tween star gains following on Disney Channel, gets his or her own show, records album, launches merchandising lines, tours Disney parks, makes midbudget movie for studio or direct-to-vid unit, gets supporting role in next blockbuster.... )

But ABC is a different beast. The broadcast network has been on a roller coaster ratings-wise throughout Disney's nearly 18-year tenure as its owner. The owned-stations group, the bedrock of former ABC parent Capital Cities, has held at 8-10 outlets during that time while its Big Four rivals went on shopping sprees in the early 2000s. …

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