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Beyond Control: ABC and the Fate of the Networks.

Beyond Control, ABC and the Fate of the Networks Beyond Control, ABC and the Fate of the Networks. Huntington Williams. Atheneum, $19.95. "A vast horny wasteland, an excuse for on-the-job mating, and an oasis of promiscuity." Hmmm. Let's guess: The Playboy mansion? Barney Frank's Washington townhouse? Heritage USA? Would you believe the ABC television network circa the late 1970s?

Huntington Williams does. In his book, he alleges that ABC News President Roone Arledge "seemed to like giving male renditions of the song, 'I'm Jist a Girl Who Cain't Say No.'" So "strong and indiscriminate" were certain executives' libidos that, according to Williams, "working at ABC. . . was like making love in front of a mirror." Say it ain't so, Roone.

Williams worked at ABC from 1981 to 1985 and is currently editor of the Gannett Center Journal, the quarterly publication of the Gannett Center for Media Studies. He knows the corporate players well and captures the network's ebb and flow from also-ran to number one and back. Although his peevish, overblown rhetoric (which seems directed mainly toward executives he did not interview for the book) undercuts some examples of a network truly out of control, the examples are still striking. For instance:

In 1976, a year of then-record profits, ABC gave free commercial time to United Airlines in exchange for free use of the airline's 17-room triplex suite at the Plaza Hotel in New York.

For two years, one of the network's chief programmers kept a psychic on the payroll in order to help him select what shows the network should air.

In 1983, Jim Abernathy, vice president in charge of Wall Street relations, spent over $500,000 of the network's money in a botched attempt to buy ABC chairman and founder Leonard Goldenson an honorary degree from Harvard for his 80th birthday.

Ah, Goldenson. His is a story Williams tells well. It is part pluck: Son of a Scottsdale, Pennsylvania department store owner, Goldenson graduated from Harvard Law School at the height of the Depression and had to wait six years before getting a chance to work in the one field that ever interested him--movies. Part luck: the job he finally got, helping to reorganize a bankrupt Paramount Pictures, afforded a smart young attorney unimagined upward mobility, so much so that by the age of 32 he was president of Paramount's theater division. And part guts: in 1951 Goldenson paid $25 million for ABC, which at the time had no source of programming and was losing $2 million a year.

Goldenson turned ABC's fortunes around by convincing Hollywood that television could be a customer instead of a competitor. In the beginning, television had been seen as a threat to box office revenues. Then Goldenson got Warner Brothers to produce "Cheyenne" for ABC. The show was a hit, ABC turned a profit, and the relationship between Hollywood studios and network television changed forever--or at least until next year.

That's when the 20-year-old financial-interest and syndication rules limiting network ownership of television programs expires. Since 1970 the studios have owned all programs and leased them to the networks for two airings. In the 1980s, with the explosive increase in the number of cable and independent stations, the demand for programs outstripped the supply and the value of programs once seen on the networks skyrocketed. Suddenly there were millions to be made from "Mr. Ed" reruns; hundreds of millions from reruns of "Cosby." Since the studios owned the programs, they made the money. The networks' only solace was that this jackpot coincided with a deregulation wave in Washington that washed into the chairmanship of the FCC Mark Fowler, who wanted to abolish the financial interest rules and expand network ownership of programs.

Fowler's efforts were opposed by a barrage of Hollywood celebrities who descended on Capitol Hill to lobby on behalf of the studios. The studios' chief lobbyist was, of course, President Reagan, who overruled Fowler. The Gipper's fondness for deregulation apparently stopped where his Hollywood friends' financial interests began.

By contrast, the takeover of ABC by Capitol Cities in 1985--the first network takeover in the history of American broadcasting--was, by Williams's account, an orderly, logical, and friendly affair. This was no hostile junk-bond raid, the kind Ted Turner mounted against CBS. Capitol Cities wasn't looking to buy ABC and sell it off piece by piece, as Lawrence Tisch has done with CBS. It was instead the crowning moment in Goldenson's epic career. At 80 and ready to retire, he had found in Capitol Cities "the right home for this company." The weak-sister network Goldenson had purchased in 1951 for $25 million sold 24 years later for $3.5 billion.

When Williams sticks to his larger theme of the relationship between Hollywood, the networks, Washington, and Wall Street, he weaves a compelling tale. But he seems so concerned with some executives' sybaritic philosophy that he leaves important areas unexplored. Like, for instance, the creative community in Hollywood: the writers, actors, and directors who have a huge impact on a network's destiny. After all, no TV legend--not the Fonz, not Archie Bunker, not Ben Casey--was the creation of a network executive.
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Author:Eisendrath, John
Publication:Washington Monthly
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Nov 1, 1989
Words:858
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