World: Stuart Elliott in America

Imagine a US president purging his cabinet a month before election day. Or the manager of the New York Yankees benching his team's biggest stars a month before the baseball playoffs start. Or an agency ousting senior management a month before defending its largest account in a review.

That's pretty much what the Walt Disney Company did last week when it shook up the top ranks of its struggling ABC TV network in a purge described by Daily Variety in a four-column, front-page headline as a "Mouse Meltdown". A month before ABC is to present its primetime schedule for the 2004-05 season to Madison Avenue in the annual multibillion-dollar bazaar known as the upfront market, Disney's head honchos, Michael Eisner and Robert Iger, swung an axe in ABC's executive suite with the fervour of Faye Dunaway as Joan Crawford in Mommie Dearest.

It's not that Eisner and Iger were mad at the executives. To continue the analogy, they were mad at the ratings. Or more precisely, the lack thereof.

Since the 1999-2000 season, when ABC was riding high on the success of the American version of Who Wants to be a Millionaire?, the network's viewership has been in freefall, dropping to a woeful fourth place - behind CBS, Fox and NBC - among viewers aged 18 to 49, the category most coveted by advertisers.

The litany since the heyday is as woeful as Cinderella's life before Prince Charming showed up. ABC hasn't had a breakout drama hit in seven years. None of its dramas or comedies is likely to finish among the top 25 shows watched by the 18 to 49 age group when the 2003-04 season finishes; with six weeks to go, overall viewership in that category is down a gut-wrenching 13 per cent.

And ABC badly lags behind its rivals in the suddenly hot genre of reality programming, with its entries such as The Bachelor and Extreme Makeover drawing many fewer viewers than competitive series including American Idol, The Apprentice and Survivor.

Among the victims of the corporate hit were expected targets such as Lloyd Braun, the chairman of what's known as the ABC Entertainment Television Group, along with unexpected targets such as Susan Lyne, the president of ABC Entertainment for the past two seasons. While the reshuffling promises to streamline the top-heavy management layers at ABC and the new leadership is being widely praised, a major problem remains unaddressed: the penchant for Iger and Eisner - both former ABC executives - to keep micromanaging the network by involving themselves in major programming decisions.

But with both men seeking any means necessary to fend off the critics intent on ousting Eisner as Disney's chief executive, the well-publicised failures of ABC, far outweighing its few successes, meant something had to be done - even if it had to be so close to the upfront market, when networks sell in advance as much as 80 per cent of their ad inventories for the fall season.

Agencies perceiving ABC as desperate may, say, offer it less for its commercial time than they will for spots on the more hit-rich networks.

But Eisner and Iger, like the impulsive detectives in primetime dramas, made their bold moves. Whether a reversal of fortune can be achieved as easily as, well, ABC remains to be seen.

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