Jewish World Review Sept. 23, 2002 / 17 Tishrei, 5763
http://www.NewsAndOpinion.com | Headline in a recent Wall Street Journal front page article: "Desperate for a Hit, ABC Is Refocusing On Middle America." The piece told how Disney executives are carefully overseeing new show production and doing everything in their power to turn their number three network into a winner once again.
The article goes on to say, "Executives are trying to mold shows to appeal to and reflect a broad swath of suburban America, the formula behind Disney theme parks and animated movies and one that harks back to ABC's successes in the 1970's and 1980's." This is a strategy that I applaud -- unfortunately, it runs counter to the thinking within the industry of the last ten to fifteen years.
Upstart networks like Fox and Warner Bros. made their marks in the late eighties and nineties by targeting teenage and twenty-something audiences with edgy, counter-programming. Shows like "Beverly Hills 90210," "The Simpsons" and "Melrose Place" pushed the envelope, as they say, and set the stage for the more in-your-face programs which were to come.
Recent HBO hit shows like "Sex in the City," which are filled with pushy, vulgar characters engaged in deep conversations concerning bodily functions and sex organs, inspired NBC to follow suit. In an announcement last January the network of the peacock spoke proudly of abandoning family-oriented programming for what they called "smart, upscale, urban comedies" (translation: vulgar, adolescent, obnoxious humor). Sad to say the strategy worked. Playing to America's lowest common denominator, NBC currently ranks (no pun intended) number one in total primetime viewers.
But when ABC attempted to follow the NBC success formula with shows like "Two Guys, a Girl, and a Pizza Place," and "It's Like, You know" the formula failed. Hmmm. Could it be that the public, willing to watch sassy, attitude-driven characters on the other stations, just wouldn't accept that sort of thing from Disney? For better or worse, the American public has certain expectations when it comes to anything related to Disney.
When a company spends seventy-plus years building a public perception, it shouldn't be surprised when people object to seeing that perception altered -- especially when that perception is one of high quality standards, strong family values and traditional principles. Any business person knows that a good, solid market brand is a tough thing to build -- it's even tougher to maintain -- and it's tougher yet to abandon. But why would you want to abandon it? Especially when it's such a positive image.
Why would a company in its right mind want to separate itself from the audience that has proven to be the most successful for it decade after decade? Growth and diversity are the usual answers given, but that's a cop out. A creative company such as Disney can certainly grow and be diverse without abandoning its core values (and its core market along with it).
ABC Entertainment Group Chairman, Lloyd Braun, was quoted in the article as saying, "We have one of the most enduring brands in the world, we should be embracing it rather than running from it." I couldn't agree more. Let the other networks chase after the trendy and the spoiled. Let the others fall over each other to be the network with the biggest attitude. Let the others be the first to break with traditions as they further crumble away at what's left of American civility.
With most broadcasters playing to the lowest of the low, ABC has a clear path all to itself. ABC has the chance to take the high road and position itself as a leader in top quality programming for middle America. ABC has an almost exclusive opportunity to reach middle America BECAUSE PEOPLE EXPECT IT OF DISNEY.
This is not to say that ABC should bring back "Leave it to Beaver" or "Davy Crockett," or "Zorro" or "The Mickey Mouse Club." But they could bring us the next "Happy Days" or "Cosby Show" or "Cheers." Or the next "Murder She Wrote" or "Mattlock." They might explore doing a new take on the old weekly variety show. Or how about a late night talk show for people over the age of 23? Like what the old "Tonight" show with Johnny Carson used to be -- you know, something my mother could watch. There's an awful lot of mothers out there.
Some innovative thinking, some understanding of what the Disney company stands for in the hearts and minds of America, some respect for what has worked in the past, and a little good taste could do wonders for the network.
Animation was in a sorry state of decline before Disney reintroduced high quality animated features like "The Little Mermaid" and "Beauty and the Beast." They might do the same favor for television. Sure, lots of people watch lots of junk television, but there isn't too much else being offered for the rest of us right now. ABC can be the alternative network. ABC could be the network for the rest of us.
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JWR contributor Greg Crosby, former creative head for Walt Disney publications, has written thousands of comics, hundreds of children's books, dozens of essays, and a letter to his congressman. A freelance writer in Southern California, you may contact him by clicking here.