"Seriously," David Spade says to me, "What's this story about?"
It's a hot August day in Burbank, California, and the unshaven Spade is standing in the near-empty Disney-owned studio where 8 Simple Rules is shot. When I tell him that it's a piece on Anne Sweeney, the forty-six-year-old woman who, after six successful years in charge of Disney's non-sports cable properties, was tapped last April to take over the ABC Network, Spade, who plays a character named C.J. on 8 Simple Rules, nods his head a couple of times and says, "Anne Sweeney. Anne Sweeney. Right." The onetime movie sidekick of Chris Farley, Spade has since leaving Saturday Night Live built a career playing variations on the same character—a sarcastic little guy who can hurl insults with a precision that cuts straight to people's greatest fears and insecurities, their regrets and unrealized hopes.
"Yeah," Spade continues, in his trademark whiny drawl. "Anne came over to the house one night and we fixed a couple of things in the schedule. It's cool now."
With that Spade exits stage left for lunch, leaving the show's publicist, Jeff Fordis, and me to watch the actress Katey Sagal—who spent a decade as the sexually frustrated wife on Married … With Children—rehearse a scene. 8 Simple Rules's director, James Widdoes, best known as Hoover, the well-meaning but overmatched president of Delta Tau Chi fraternity in National Lampoon's Animal House, sets up the shots, laughing hysterically at everything Sagal says.
After a moment Fordis says, "David was just kidding about Anne coming over, you know."
"I know," I say. But I can understand why Fordis worries that I might really believe that Sweeney dropped by Spade's pad one evening with a bulletin board and a six-pack to help her work out the network's fall lineup. Things at ABC have been so bad lately—its recent history of public gaffes, missed opportunities, and internal wranglings have been playing out for months in the pages of The New York Times and Variety, the Hollywood Reporter and the Los Angeles Times—that one could be forgiven for thinking, Why not? Maybe someone decided to let David Spade call the shots.
Who runs ABC at any given moment has been an ongoing trivia question for the past ten years or so. Since 1995—when Disney merged with Capital Cities/ABC in a $19 billion deal—the top job at the network has been like the post of manager of the New York Yankees in the 1980s, when George Steinbrenner fitfully hired and fired skippers almost annually, only to finish the decade without a World Series ring. As executives have come and gone, the product on the air has been inconsistent and ultimately unwatched by an American public that in the age of cable no longer has to give network television the benefit of the doubt.
At every turn during this period, it seems, ABC called for the wrong play at the wrong moment. There was the attempt to make the network into a clone of NBC, which was then achieving ratings bonanzas with Friends and Seinfeld—hip young stars sitting in apartments furnished by Ikea. There was the brief success and then the overuse of a game show—Who Wants to Be a Millionaire?—that seemed to run every night, over and over and over again, to the point where we didn't care whether or not someone won the $1 million prize or how many damn lifelines were left. And then there were the unseized moments, any one of which might have helped make ABC the broadcast juggernaut it seemed destined to be when it first gained access to the resources and power of mighty Disney: the network turned down Survivor (now a perennially top-ranked show for CBS) not once but three times; it balked at Scrubs (now a hit comedy on NBC) and CSI (now a hit franchise, with two spinoffs, on CBS), both of which, gallingly, were developed by Touchstone, Disney's in-house television production unit; and when Survivor's creator, Mark Burnett, came to ABC with The Apprentice, the network's inability to move quickly enough allowed that show, which became a huge hit last year, to land at NBC. Last season ABC finished a distant fourth in the ratings, behind NBC, CBS, and even Fox, and it is reportedly losing $250 million a year. In May, during ABC's presentation at the New York "Upfronts," where networks preview their fall schedules for advertisers, Jimmy Kimmel, the man plucked to be ABC's late-night funnyman (after ABC infamously failed to land David Letterman in 2002), characterized his own network as "the fat kids who eat paste."
"You have a network that's collapsed," says Tom Wolzien, a senior media analyst with Sanford C. Bernstein & Company, an investment and research firm. "You have a network that has not delivered to advertisers, not delivered to its affiliates, and certainly has not delivered to its shareholders at Disney."
"Nobody's watching," Wolzien continues. "Actually, 'nobody' in this context is five to six million households. It's not like they've shut down and gone home. But fixing this is a multi-year project. I tell my clients, if you like the [Disney] stock, buy it for other reasons, but ABC should not be one of them."
ABC's struggles could not have come at a worse time for the men who head its corporate parent, the Walt Disney Company. Both Michael Eisner, Disney's chief executive officer, and Bob Iger, its chief operating officer, have over the years been accused of micromanaging and second-guessing the decisions of the people they've hired, à la Steinbrenner. Last year Roy Disney, a former member of the board (and the nephew of the company's founder), tried to launch a shareholder revolt against Eisner. (Partly as a result, Eisner stepped down as chairman of the board in March, but retained his title as CEO.) More recently the company has had to fight off a hostile takeover bid from Comcast, the cable company. And in 2005 its profitable partnership with Pixar Animation, which made millions of dollars for Disney with movies such as Toy Story and Finding Nemo, will probably end—meaning that the success of ABC will be more important than ever. Within the Disney empire the pressure on Sweeney to revive ABC is enormous.
But the television environment Sweeney now confronts is tougher than what any of her predecessors faced, and perhaps tougher than anything a television executive has faced in the fifty years since the medium pervaded the American home. Even as recently as 1994 one could say that ABC was just a hit or two away from righting itself. That's no longer the case. In 1994 there were four networks—the Big Three (CBS, NBC, and ABC) plus the fledgling Fox. Today there are six: WB and UPN have sprung up alongside what are now the Big Four. And the seemingly endless proliferation of cable channels—which Sweeney herself helped foster, in her previous capacities as an executive at Nickelodeon, FX, and the Disney Channel—has both balkanized television viewership and diluted the pool of executive and on-air talent available to the networks.
And yet in handing the keys to Sweeney, Disney may very well have settled not only the network's future but also that of television itself. Certainly it can be argued that in her present role she is the second most powerful woman in Hollywood, after Sherry Lansing, the president of Paramount Communications and the chairman of Paramount's Motion Picture Group. More important, Sweeney—if the Disney higher-ups follow through on what they promised her—has power over a multitude of channels and brands that will define Disney for the next century. What does the future hold for a broadcast company when Americans are increasingly drawn to cable rather than broadcast? What, for that matter, is the future of television, now that the medium is changing in ways that nobody imagined? Mickey Mouse can't solve these problems for Disney. Michael Eisner and Bob Iger are hoping that Sweeney can.