ABC talks tough
ABC's top executive touts its fall schedule and digital strategy at Merrill Lynch's big media conference.
By Paul R. La Monica, editor at large

NEW YORK ( -- ABC's top executive hyped the network's upcoming fall TV schedule at a media industry conference on Wednesday.

Speaking at the second day of Merrill Lynch's influential Media and Entertainment Conference in Pasadena, Anne Sweeney, co-chairman of Media Networks and president of Disney-ABC Television Group, said she was confident that ABC's new shows will be big hits.

Disney's ABC network has been one of the most innovative when it comes to embracing new technology.
Disney's Anne Sweeney expressed confidence that the ABC network will build on the ratings success of the past two seasons.
Disney, thanks in part to strong ratings at ABC and its cable networks, has outperformed the market by a wide margin this year.

ABC, owned by Walt Disney (Charts), has a lot at stake this season since it is debuting more new shows than any other network. It also is taking a risk by moving one of its top hits, "Grey's Anatomy," from Sundays to Thursday nights, putting it head to head against CBS's "CSI," which was the top-rated scripted show on TV last year.

But Sweeney stressed that ABC should continue to build on the ratings increases it has shown the past two seasons and that advertisers are betting on the network.

"During the upfront, we were gratified that advertisers shared our enthusiasm about the upcoming season," Sweeney said, noting that ABC's ad prices increased by 3 to 4 percent, helping the network secure $2.3 billion in prime-time advertising sales in the spring's so-called upfront ad-buying period.

She added that the network sold $3 billion in advertising overall during the upfront and that there was strong demand for "scatter" ads, commercial time that was unsold during the upfront, as well.

Digital revenue and 'High School Musical' boosting sales

Sweeney also said that ABC will continue to be innovative and make its shows available over the Internet, cell phones and other digital platforms. To that end, ABC was the first network to sell downloads of its shows on Apple's (Charts) iTunes last year and also was the first to set up free streaming versions of shows online that feature ads that cannot be skipped or deleted.

"The digital revolution has unleashed a consumer coup. Today, we don't only have to create in demand content but on demand content so consumers can get it any time, any way and anywhere they want to," she said.

Sweeney also specified Wednesday that ABC would air streams of seven of its shows online and that it had reached deals with its affiliate stations so that local advertising could be included in the online broadcasts.

But during a question-and-answer session, when Sweeney was asked about how much revenue ABC could eventually generate from new media, she declined to give the audience a figure.

"I didn't bring my crystal ball but we do have high hopes," she said.

Sweeney also showed clips of shows that air on some of ABC's cable networks, such as ABC Family and the Disney Channel. She spoke at length about how the made-for-cable movie "High School Musical," which first aired on the network in January, has become a "global phenomenon" that is benefiting all of Disney's businesses.

Although Sweeney did not say how much revenue "High School Musical"-related products will generate for Disney, the movie, which Sweeney said cost only a little more than $4 million to produce, has spawned strong demand for DVDs of the film as well as downloads of it on iTunes, CDs and downloads of the movie's soundtrack, books and clothing.

Sweeney added that Disney's film studio is working on a "Bollywood" version of "High School Musical" for the Indian market as well as a movie for Latin America. In addition, Disney's theme parks plan on featuring "High School Musical"-based pep rallies. A sequel to the original movie will air next August, she said.

Stock is not a Mouse trap

Disney's stock has soared 27 percent this year, making it one of the best-performing media stocks this year. The success of its broadcast and cable TV networks as well as its movie studio, which has two of the biggest box office hits of the year with "Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man's Chest" and "Cars," have lifted financial results.

Wall Street has also applauded Disney's overall digital media strategy. In addition to making many of its TV shows available online, the company said Tuesday that several movies from Disney-owned studios can now be bought on iTunes.

Executives from ABC competitors CBS (Charts) and News Corp (Charts)., which owns Fox, spoke at the Merrill conference on Tuesday and also stressed that their companies will thrive in the world of digital media.

Jeff Zucker, the chief executive officer of NBC Universal Television Group, which is owned by General Electric (Charts), spoke at the conference on Wednesday, but his remarks were not webcast.

NBC, which has finished fourth among 18-49-year-olds for two consecutive years, is off to a good start, though, thanks to big ratings for its first Sunday Night Football game.

It also is making moves to bolster its online presence. NBC purchased iVillage, a site that caters to women, earlier this year and also inked a deal with popular video-sharing site YouTube to promote new NBC shows.


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