Stopping at the employee cafeteria for a morning cup of coffee, staffers at ABC's midtown Manhattan headquarters are apt to find an unlikely table mate these days: the big boss. Unlike his predecessors, new ABC President John Sias often mingles with the troops at breakfast rather than repairing to the 40th-floor executive dining room. "It's not good to use all the executive perks and ask others to cut back," says Sias, 59, a former paratrooper known for his practical jokes and the Captain Marvel T shirts he sometimes wears under his suit and tie. "It's important for executives to set an example."
There can be no one left at the network who has failed to get the message. Since Capital Cities Communications assumed control of ABC in January, the newly merged company has embarked on a stringent cost-cutting campaign, an alien notion in the high-living world of network television. Layoffs have hit nearly every part of ABC's TV operation. More than 70 people were let go in the news division; some 300 positions were cut at ABC-owned stations in New York, Los Angeles, Chicago and San Francisco. Such familiar trappings of the executive life-style as limousines and liberal expense accounts are now frowned on. Programming, too, may soon feel the knife. The network known for such blockbuster mini-series as Roots and The Winds of War is now shying away from these extravagant ventures. Cheap game shows are not about to invade prime time, and Joan Collins' Dynasty finery appears safe, at least for the time being; but it is clear that more frugal times are ahead for ABC, and perhaps for the other two networks as well.
ABC's belt tightening has come as no surprise to industry watchers. Capital Cities, a successful owner of magazines, newspapers and broadcasting stations, is known for running lean, and extremely profitable, operations. ABC, meanwhile, has been floundering financially. As NBC last week celebrated its first victory ever in Nielsen's cumulative annual prime-time ratings, ABC chalked up a last-place place finish for the second year in a row. Capital Cities/ABC executives told stockholders three weeks ago that the network may post a net loss this year for the first time since 1971. Nor is the situation likely to improve quickly, as all three networks face growing competition from cable, videocassettes and independent stations. "The landscape is changing," says Sias, the former head of Capital Cities' publishing division. "We want to shape a company that survives and prospers. ABC is going to be a new entity; I don't know yet what it will be like."
Signs are starting to appear. In sports ABC has long been the most aggressive and free-spending of the three networks. But the company's new managers declined to match CBS's bid of $173 million for rights to the next four seasons of N.B.A. games, and they are balking at the hefty fees being demanded for major league baseball and N.F.L. games. "We aren't conceding anything to the competition, but we are getting out of the red ink," says Dennis Swanson, the new president of ABC Sports. One casualty could be Monday Night Football, a once lucrative ABC mainstay, which lost $25 million this past season. (Two of the show's high-priced analysts, Joe Namath and O.J. Simpson, have already been dropped from the broadcast, though Simpson may remain with ABC as a commentator on college games.)