Lynette Rice
May 07, 2004 AT 04:00 AM EDT

When ABC stages its annual dog and pony show for advertisers May 18, execs will have a lot of explaining to do — and not just because Married to the Kellys lasted a full season. One month before the network unveils its fall lineup, its parent company, Disney, cleaned house by canning ABC’s two top entertainment honchos, chairman Lloyd Braun and president Susan Lyne, replacing them with Stephen McPherson, the president of Disney’s production arm, Touchstone TV, and Anne Sweeney, head of the Disney Channel. McPherson’s the sixth exec to hold the top programming post since the Mouse House took over ABC in 1996.

The network that defined ’70s TV (admit it: You wish The Love Boat were still on Saturday nights) hasn’t launched a bona fide hit drama since The Practice debuted in 1997. Ratings this season are down 10 percent across the schedule, leaving ABC in fourth place. Even its beloved Alias is hitting all-time series lows. Still, the exec changes couldn’t come at a worse time. McPherson is about to sell Madison Avenue on a crop of shows that were developed by people no longer at ABC — hardly the way to promote a stable network. ”It’s incredibly disruptive,” says one studio head. ”We entered into business with one group and we’re getting a final decision by another.”

So, is ABC living on Fantasy Island? Wall Street is skeptical about a quick recovery — after all, it took Les Moonves five years to turn the third-place CBS into the most-watched network. ”When you need to dig yourself out of a pit this deep, it’s going to take a number of years,” says Sanford C. Bernstein analyst Tom Wolzien. So we took it upon ourselves to suggest a few strategic moves:

WHO’S THE BOSS? ABC needs to show Hollywood who’s in charge. It’s long been believed that Disney president Robert Iger — and to some extent CEO Michael Eisner — is the one running ABC, robbing their TV execs of any real power. Iger admitted as much in a 2002 EW interview (he would not comment for this story): ”I’ve stepped up involvement in recent months because it’s the biggest problem we have control over. I have 26 years of experience at ABC. I think I have a thing or two to add to the process.”

Maybe, maybe not. ”Networks work better if they have the vision of a strong leader,” says the studio head. ”If you feel like Moonves is behind your project, you feel like you have a good shot.” But heads of studios who produce shows for ABC say having Lyne and Braun behind you didn’t guarantee Eisner and Iger were. That’s why Iger has to quit micromanaging and grant decision-making power to Sweeney and McPherson, a 14-year TV-biz vet who developed CSI and Scrubs at Touchstone, only to see them end up at other networks.

DON’T OVERTHINK DRAMAS. ABC’s tried too hard to curry favor with critics by coming up with bold dramas that are too complicated (Line of Fire, Threat Matrix, and yes, Alias) or too dark (Miracles, Veritas). Either learn from CBS and NBC and create a procedural franchise (CSI, Law & Order) or re-embrace your thirtysomething roots and give women something to (willingly) cry over. Potential fall fixes: suburban-mom drama Desperate Housewives and Gramercy Park, about nannies working in a posh NYC building.

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