PASADENA, Calif. -- ABC is working aggressively to improve its ratings performance in the new television season but network executives stopped short of predicting a dramatic turnaround.
"The most important thing for us right now is to show that the ship is heading in the right direction," Lloyd Braun, chairman of ABC Entertainment Television Group, told a TV critics gathering Wednesday.
When Braun was asked whether the network had hit bottom he began to offer a qualified reply, prompting ABC Entertainment President Susan Lyne to interrupt.
"Yes. Just say yes," Lyne said.
The goal is for ABC to show "tangible signs" of improvement, Braun said, which he cautioned probably can't take place in a single season.
The network suffered a 23 percent drop in viewership last season. Its downward spiral has put it in fourth place (behind NBC, CBS and Fox) among the coveted 18-to-49 viewer demographic.
For the 2002-03 season, ABC is overhauling its prime-time schedule with seven new series and scheduling changes on every night.
"Who Wants to Be a Millionaire" was dropped as a series and will air only as specials. Its dramatic drop in ratings last season, and ABC's failure to anticipate the erosion, was key to the network's decline.
"Given our current position, we have absolutely no margin for mediocrity," Braun said.
New series are being massaged to "squeeze every last ounce of appeal" out of them and ABC is asking producers to reinvigorate returning programs such as "The Drew Carey Show," he said.
The network also will call on the resources of parent company Walt Disney to mount a "promotional blitz" for network shows, he said.
ABC is pinning part of its hopes on the 8-9 p.m. block, which Lyne called the least competitive part of the prime-time schedule and one that offered the most opportunity.
The start of evening TV watching represents a virtual "free ball" because all networks have an equal shot at the start of the evening to draw viewers, she said.
ABC also had been focusing on developing comedies for the 8 p.m. hour, although Lyne said there was a reluctance to label them "family comedies" because that term has come to be associated with "safe, bland" shows.
Instead, ABC's "happy hour" tag describes shows that are aimed at adults but which would be fine for younger viewers too, she said.
New shows scheduled for the time period include the sitcom "8 Simple Rules ..." starring John Ritter and Katey Sagal and the fantasy drama "Dinotopia," based on last season's miniseries.
Despite its ratings woes the network exceeded expectations in the preseason advertising commitments it obtained, Braun said.
If special events including the Academy Awards and Super Bowl are figured in, the total would exceed $2 billion and put ABC second only to NBC in so-called "upfront" advertising, he said.
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