"I have never been hysterical in my life," says Anthony D. Thomopoulos, president of ABC Enertainment, and the scary thing is, he looks like he means it. This is not the mind-set one might expect from the custodian of the most profitable schedule in network TV history.
Every sagacious soothsayer in show biz predicts that ABC will be the No. 1 network again this season, but that doesn't mean Thomopoulos can put his feet up and call it a year. There is constant pressure on him to maximize profitability in every one of what TV people call the "dayparts" of every single day.
Hysterics would seem S.O.P. in such an environment. Movies, books and even TV shows about network television have persistently depicted it as a business in which decisions are routinely made on window ledges and all executive suites come outfitted with rubber wallpaper and iron underwear. Thomopoulos, though, is the picture of corporate cool. The cut of his jib is strictly Approved ABC Nabob, and he is probably the only ABC executive commonly referred to by women in television as "cute."
Thomopoulos inherited his job from the Kingfish of Kitsch, Fred Silverman, when Silverman bolted for NBC (both men are 41). It was said then that Silverman had set up such a foolproof schedule that Thomopoulos only had to keep from running into his office furniture in order to look good. Asked if he feels he has made his own mark on TV, Thomopoulos says with icy finality, "Yes." In fact ABC is more successful now than it was under Silverman.
Of the new season, Thomopoulos can calmly declare, "I think we will be No. 1 again. CBS and NBC will be close in the early going but then CBS will pull ahead of NBC because they have a stronger series lineup. As for breakthroughs in programming Thomopoulos essentially admits there won't be any. This is going to be a season of the tried and the true with an emphasis on the tried.
"I don't see on any of the networks, a new form per se," he says, "but I do see television getting better. There'll be more diversity, and that's because audiences are requiring it. I think viewers are very bright people, and I really believe television as a medium has gotten a lot better in the last three or four years."
Thomopoulos says The People love television -- those critics, such knaves -- and even though ABC has built its fortunes on cackling, vacuous sit-coms and violent cop shows -- that is, on trash -- he ain't got no shame. He says, "I don't feel at all a lack of respect for what we do."
Nor does he think the networks owe the public an apology for such widely derided debacles as the Sunday night last February when, in the heat of the ratings wars, viewers were forced to pick among "Elvis!" on ABC, "Gone With the Wind" on CBS and "One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest" on. NBC, all on the air at the same time.
"That's just good business," Thomopoulos says. "We're in a competitive situation. If Chrysler brings out a new small car, the other car companies don't all sit back and say, 'Okay, we're not going to bring out a small car to compete.' Television is very competitive, and the excitement that results from that is beneficial to the viewer. If we were all docile and laid-back, the viewer would suffer. People like television and they know that competition is the best stimulus for improvement."
Will there be nights like Elvis-Wind-Cuckoo this season? "I assume so, yes." In fact the first Sunday night of the new season, Sept. 16, finds Bob Hope's China trip on NBC up against the first telecast of Woody Allen's "Annie Hall" on ABC and a major drama, "The Tenth Month," with Carol Burnett, on CBS.
Thomopoulos doesn't lose any sleep, either, over the fact that there are no regularly scheduled variety hours on any of the networks this season. "I wish the audience were clamoring for variety," he says, "but the fact is, they do not respond to it on a weekly basis. The audience has trouble with, or a lack of desire to sit through, an hour of people singing. People have short attention spans and it's hard to hold them with musical numbers."
One of ABC'S few competitive weak spots is late-night programming. This year the network will drop some of its seedy, unseemly old cop show reruns for more original programming, all of it ("Bizarre," "Friday," "Low Moan Spectacular," "Completely Off the Wall") bluntly mimicking NBC'S trailblazing smash "saturday Night Live" -- except that none of ABC'S will actually be live. The network will also air reruns of "Barney Miller," "Charlie's Angels" and "The Love Boat" while, Thomopoulos notes, CBS will have lost two of its key late-night attractions, reruns of "The Rockford Files" and "Mash," which are going into local syndication.
In response to the rumor that Thomopoulos has been wooing Johnny Carson -- gone grumpy over a lack of head-patting from NBC -- Thomopoulos will only say, "I've met Johnny at parties. He is a sensational, terrific talent and NBC is very lucky to have him." Oh boy -- can we quote him on that?
Thomopoulos spends about 60 percent of each year in Hollywood, where he programs ABC from a sleek office that looks as though it were designed around him. He says he is really not aware if he is in New York or L.A. because his work consumes him. In addition to going to Hollywood parties, he will occasionally drop by such production centers as the Paramount lot, where many of ABC'S hardiest hits ("Happy Days," "Mork and Mindy," "Laverne and Shirley") are filmed.
Recently he said hello there to Penny "Laverne" Marshall, but he was out of ear shot when Marshall, asked what Thomopoulos's job with the network was, replied, "We haven't figured it out."
That job is not one for the weak of heart. In network TV the pressure is as great, if not greater, when you're on top as when you're on bottom, because the stakes escalate with success in utterly shameful proportions. Former CBS programming chief Mike Dann, now a Warner Cable executive, recently estimated that advertisers have already spent " $170 million more" on ABC'S prime-time schedule than on the offerings of CBS or NBC.
Dann says that each little rating point of difference that ABC can maintain over its competition "will be worth about $75 million in pretax profits" to the network. Does this make Thomopoulos jumpy, edgy or the nation's leading consumer of Maalox? "I have no adverse reaction to the competitive atmosphere we live in," he says with the tranquility of a true smoothie.
In fact, he adds, even if his boss, ABC-TV President Frederick S. Pierce, were to send him packing, he'd go packing with a smile and not a nervous breakdown. It's a little creepy.
"All I know is how I do my job and live my life," he says, "and 99.9 percent of my life is my job. For me, it's like sitting in the stands at a baseball game and thinking, 'I'd show 'em how to do it if I were out there,' and now someone has said, 'Get up, big shot, and show 'em what you can do.' And I'm thrilled with the opportunity.
"Fred Pierce and I have such a great relationship, professionally and socially, that if he had to replace me, I would understand that completely. I wouldn't question that." And he'd still have a drink with old Fred after work" "Yes," Tony Thomopoulos replies. He doesn't even blink at the thought.