Prime-Time

To: Network Brass.

Re: Hot Fall Pilot.

So maybe this won't make the cut for the new fall shows. Too bad, since it's probably the best story line the television industry has to offer right now. This is the week, after all, that Susan Lyne, the new head of entertainment at ABC, unveils her first lineup of shows to reverse the network's wrenching ratings slide into fourth place, an embarrassing fall caused largely by the country's sudden uninterest in watching Regis endlessly quiz would-be millionaires. In recent weeks Lyne and her troops have pored over 110 scripts and screened 29 pilots, from which they chose eight series that they're hoping will help make ABC the king of family-friendly sitcoms and dramas. Their picks include "Legally Blond," based on the movie about a clueless Harvard Law student, and "The Oath," about two HMO doctors fighting the system. "For the most part, I'm thrilled," Lyne said last week.

Even discounting for Hollywood hyperbole, it's hard to exaggerate the challenges facing Lyne. While the network was fixated on "Millionaire," it didn't develop any powerhouse replacements. ABC is ending the current TV season with no entertainment shows among TV's top 25 hits, and some 3 million viewers have tuned out. It is in last place among major networks for delivering the 18- to 49-year-old viewers that advertisers covet. ABC has a fuzzy identity, thanks in part to a puzzling ad campaign based on the color yellow. And the network has a multilayered, meddlesome management with everyone--all the way up to Michael Eisner, CEO of ABC's parent company, Disney--weighing in on programming decisions.

It's now up to Lyne, a tall, 52-year-old with disarming charm, the fourth head of entertainment at ABC in five years, to fix the mess. And Lyne, aware of the short tenure of her predecessors, won't even consider uprooting her husband, a producer at CBS's "60 Minutes II," and two teenage daughters and moving from New York to the West Coast for at least another year. "If the network is tanking in two seasons, I can't imagine why [Disney] would keep me," she says. Robert Iger, Disney's president, is more reassuring, telling NEWSWEEK recently, "We're going to give her time to turn it around."

It's easy to imagine why Disney picked her for the job last January. Even though Lyne lacked programming experience, she has a track record of reinventing herself in new jobs and delivering results, as managing editor of The Village Voice, vice president at Jane Fonda's production company and founding editor of Premiere: The Movie Magazine. Disney hired her in 1996, and two years later she moved to ABC, which began scoring big audiences for critically acclaimed movies like "Life With Judy Garland,'' "Anne Frank'' and "The Three Stooges''--projects all championed by Lyne over the objections of doubting bosses. Her latest handiwork is "Dinotopia," an $85 million, six-hour "megaseries" about a lost world of dinosaurs, which started airing Sunday night.

Lyne is the first to admit she's new to the art of programming prime time. But she's learning fast, thanks in part to the relentless questioning techniques she honed years ago as a journalist. "How does it work?" she shamelessly asks at a recent staff meeting about pilots, clearly perplexed by the process for picking "show-runners," the executives in charge of individual TV series. Although she's the boss, Lyne also has asked her lieutenants when and where they want her to butt in and when they want her to remain behind the scenes. It's so not Hollywood, where honchos often trample on underlings and rarely let you know what they don't know. Lyne says the distance she keeps from Hollywood--by commuting between L.A. and her New York home--will help her make more objective decisions. "You get to assess ideas based on whether they are strong, not on long-term relationships or whether our kids are classmates."

Juggling is a constant way of life for her these days. On a recent April morning, she jams in an interview over breakfast between an appointment with a contractor at her home and a visit to one of her daughter's schools. After a meeting that afternoon in New York, she would hop a return flight to Los An-geles for a programming discussion scheduled for early the next morning. During a single week in April, her schedule grew so hectic that she was forced to abruptly cancel her appearance at the New York premiere of "Dinotopia." Lyne says the job is draining and grueling, but exhilarating. "It's an enormous opportunity to be able to come in and help shape what will be on air for the next five or seven years, and help refocus the network's mission," she says. "Not a day has come that I've not loved it."

There's no accounting for the American public's taste in television, but Lyne has a plan. At its core is re-establishing an ABC identity through its programs, so the public generally knows what to expect when it tunes in. So if NBC is identified with urban sophisticates, CBS with an older set and Fox with edgy youth and young adults, then to whom does ABC tailor its image? "The great American middle-class, suburban families," Lyne says. Her strategy is to go back to the future: ABC will offer family comedies (and some dramas) with a strong point of view (think "Home Improvement" and "Roseanne" from happier days at ABC) from 8 to 9 nightly--a traditionally strong slot for ABC. Two current shows, "My Wife and Kids" (Damon Wayans) and "Ac-cording to Jim" (Jim Belushi), already fit the bill. New candidates include "8 Rules for Dating My Daughter," about a father protective of his teenagers.

Provocative dramas have proved a bit trickier. Exhibit A is "Miracles," a show Lyne is very high on about a wavering seminarian working for the Vatican's New York office that investigates miracles. But it was initially rejected after Disney boss Eisner watched the pilot and decided he hated it, as did several other colleagues. But then the show tested well with focus groups, and it remained in the running late last week. Iger says he and Eisner intend only "to mentor and guide" Lyne, not dictate.

They are helping her in shaping a new ad campaign. It's being quietly developed by the Leo Burnett ad agency, not Chiat Day, ABC's longtime image adviser and creator of the much-criticized yellow campaign. While details are being finalized, the new on-air look will probably tone down the yellow by adding other colors, and ABC will focus on a new marketing message that promotes its family shows. "It's a way of redefining the brand without talking about it," Lyne says.

But Lyne is getting even more concrete help from Disney. The company will give its network a huge marketing push going into the new season, NEWSWEEK has learned. ABC has regularly carried Disney ads and covered Disney events. But for the first time since Disney purchased ABC in 1996, every corner of the sprawling empire, from theme parks to the movie studio to cruise ships, is under orders from top Disney executives to promote the new schedule. Disney president Iger says of the new mission: "Ask not what ABC can do for you. Ask what you can do for ABC." Nobody is asking that question more urgently these days than Lyne.