A New Life Lyne?

Scrambling to staunch a ratings hemorrhage, the Disney Co. last week appointed Susan Lyne president of ABC's entertainment division and charged her with finding new hit shows for the foundering network. Viewers--especially coveted young adults--have been deserting last season's big hit, "Who Wants to Be a Millionaire," and even reliable sitcoms like "The Drew Carey Show" and "Dharma & Greg" have suffered dramatic declines. Now Lyne, a magazine veteran who started Premiere magazine, is the network's top programmer. As head of ABC's TV-movie division, she brought the network some of its biggest successes, including "Life With Judy Garland," "Anne Frank," "The Three Stooges" and a remake of "Brian's Song." Though she may know a good story when she hears one, she's a novice in the rough-and-tumble world of entertainment programming. Lyne talked to NEWSWEEK's Peg Tyre about what she wants to see on ABC.

TYRE: How bad is the situation at ABC?
Panic is overstating it, but there is genuine concern at ABC and at all the networks about the shrinking audience for network television. That said, I believe it is possible to get large numbers of people to watch a show. If it is compelling, it pulls you back week after week.

ABC's audience is off 21 percent from last season, and it has fallen from first to fourth place among young-adult viewers. What happened?
In the last five years, we got a little too narrow in the way we thought about programming. We can reach more people than any other network, and we need to create programming that will appeal to as many of that broad audience as we can. That doesn't mean we want to be middle of the road or pedestrian. We need strong, well-defined shows with a distinctive voice that make some noise and pull people in.

Can you describe your dream lineup?
The mix that traditionally made ABC a successful network was great family comedies and very strong, provocative dramas. The third element I'd like to see is the occasional truly risky, surprising piece.

Such as?
Remember "Twin Peaks" or [the operatic crime drama] "Cop Rock"? I'd like that surprise element again a few times a year.

How has your background in journalism helped you in the world of television?
It's all about storytelling. In some ways, magazine stories are closer in form to television than movies. It's a fast process. You are creating something new. You can tinker with it from issue to issue and from week to week.

What do you like to watch on television?
I have a 13- and a 16-year-old daughter, and we watch a lot of TV together. Although I don't think all programming should be available to them, I'm not interested in watching much that I wouldn't be able to view with my 16-year-old.

Which shows do you like?
My girls love "Gilmore Girls," "7th Heaven," "Alias," anything on MTV. My 16-year-old loves "Smallville," HBO and, again, a lot of MTV. I watch "The Practice" religiously with my husband. I watch "West Wing." I admire "Law & Order." It is a very well-conceived and structured show. You can come in every six weeks and still be totally satisfied. It doesn't demand your constant presence. I love "Sex and the City." I wish I could tell you my 16-year-old doesn't watch it, but she does.

Disney president Bob Iger says he'll be heavily involved in the programming process. Will you be free to make your own selections?
[Iger] has been clear that he is not going to micromanage us. But he has enormous network experience. It is very useful to have Bob enthusiastic about the direction we are taking. I don't want to fight a lone battle here.