Doing the ABC reshuffle

If Disney approaches you about taking the top spot at ABC, turn tail and run like hell. Many have served; few have survived.

The latest departee: ABC Television President Steve Bornstein, the one-time golden boy who grew ESPN's revenues and profits by leaps and bounds for a decade as CEO of the all-sports network.

Bornstein's departure last week was part of what Disney sources call an ongoing reorganization at ABC that included the departure earlier this year of Stu Bloomberg, who was forced to take the fall for ABC's failure to gain little traction in the prime time ratings over the past season.

Until the restructuring is competed, Bornstein's direct reports will report to Disney President Robert Iger. They include Alex Wallau, president of ABC-TV; Walter Liss, head of the ABC-owned TV stations; Angela Shapiro, president of ABC Family; and Janice Marinelli, president of Buena Vista Television.

Sources say to watch for other departures. First on the list, perhaps: Walter Liss. He was about to retire when Bornstein talked him out of it; Liss stayed out of loyalty.

One of Bornstein's strengths is said to be finding strong talent. He was instrumental in the move to have Susan Lyne replace Bloomberg at the Entertainment division.

According to company officials, the two tasks that preoccupied Bornstein in recent months were replacing Bloomberg and reorganizing the ABC Family Channel, acquired from Fox last year.

One network official said, presumably with a straight face, that Bornstein was leaving because "he felt he accomplished his mission" at the network. Other sources said Bornstein was "frustrated" at being the head of ABC but without the authority to make critical decisions.

Clearly, there is much more work to be done. Season-to-date, through 31 weeks in prime time, the network is down 25% in household ratings, well behind CBS and NBC, and not too far ahead of Fox.

Perhaps more disturbing, from an ad-sales standpoint, ABC is down 20% and in fourth place among adults 18 to 49, its target demographic. It has a backlog of make- goods to advertisers that will make climbing out a long ordeal.

One Wall Street analyst blamed ABC's woes "on Chairman of the Board Michael Eisner's micro-management and driving people nuts." A Disney spokesman didn't return a call seeking comment on that assessment.

Others blamed Bob Iger. "For five years, he's been saying that his top priority is to fix ABC," said one station-group head. "I can't believe how many chances he's had to say that without actually doing it."

Added another ABC affiliate manager, glumly, "Steve Bornstein was about the only one there that I had a lot of confidence in."

Ad buyers aren't thrilled with ABC's predicament. "They are in a world of pain right now," commented one major agency executive recently. "That's not good. It means less overall gross rating points in the market. I'd rather have them competitive because it gives me more leverage when I'm talking to the other networks."