Risk Taker: Which TV Executive Would Be So Bizarre As to Air Twin Peaks?
par Dennis Kneale
ABC's Robert Iger Shakes Up The Industry With Shows That Break All the Molds - About Those Singing Police

LOS ANGELES – After only a month at the helm of ABC's prime-time programming division, Robert Iger claims he was too new to know better when he chose to go ahead with the unlikely new series "Twin Peaks."

The menacingly creepy murder mystery, set in a small Northwestern town, breaks most of television's rules. It shuns a simple plot. It has no major stars. Its characters are beyond bizarre. Its pacing, in an era of jumpy attention spans, is eerily languid, typical of its originator, off-kilter film director David Lynch, a TV novice who made the frightfully twisted cult films "Blue Velvet" and "Eraserhead."

The early indicators on the show weren't promising, either. ABC's own research showed an alarming 25% of viewers gave up on "Twin Peaks" in test runs. Most of the New York-based network brass deemed the macabre series just too weird. But the 39-year-old Mr. Iger liked it. A Hollywood newcomer who was thought to be a bean-counter from Capital Cities/ABC Inc., he also saw a chance to prove his creative reputation. So he mounted a battle to get the trial series on the air.

At the moment, it appears to be the best gamble of the season. "Twin Peaks" premiered this month as the most talked-about, most-watched TV movie of the year, seen by almost 35 million viewers. The media waxed rhapsodic. "Like nothing you've seen in prime time – or on God's earth," raved Newsweek. Television "has rarely seen anything as strange – or as superb," concurred Time.

With its third weekly episode airing tonight, the show has lured the biggest audience of any ABC series in its time slot in four years. If it can sustain its strong start – far from assured – it could be a pivotal hit for the once-ailing network, which is already gaining momentum in its effort to close the gap with first-place NBC, leaving CBS even further behind.

Even if "Twin Peaks" caves in, it has already won ABC new cache in Hollywood as the hands-off network, eager for ideas that are daring and different. And it has emboldened Mr. Iger and his team to raise the bar for how strange a show can get.

It's as if America's embrace of the oddballs in "Twin Peaks" has turned on a giant light bulb over the dream factories of Hollywood. Last week, for example, Mr. Iger and his team screened the rough cut for "CopRock," the next series for ABC by Steven Bochco, the successful creator of Hill Street Blues and L.A. Law. It is the first cop show done as a musical: In the pilot a jury sings the verdict in an original song by the sardonic Randy Newman.

Mr. Bochco praises Mr. Iger for taking the creative risks openly: "He always gives you a straight answer," says the producer. "He never hides behind the corporate 'we.'"

Another unusual ABC pilot, "My Life and Times," has an 88-year-old man in the year 2035 looking back on our present.

Such experiments are critical not just to the network, but also to Mr. Iger's attempt to fill the job previously held by such Hollywood luminaries as Walt Disney Co. Chairman Michael Eisner, Fox Inc. Chairman Barry Diller, and producer Fred Silverman, known in the '70s as the guy with the "golden gut."

Beaming from his sun-drenched Century City office, Mr. Iger is obviously enjoying the first blush of success. "I feel giddy," he says.

In many ways he is an unlikely candidate for one of the most powerful jobs in television. In an industry of wide-screen egos and technicolor personalities, the onetime TV weatherman is admittedly kind of gray. "You don't have in me this distinctive personality," he says. In fact, the man who shepherded the most provocative hit on the air acknowledges, "a blandness of sorts."

He didn't even show any excessive interest in watching television as a boy in Oceanside, N.Y. Instead his father, an ad man, pushed him to read – which he still does, most recently wading through a two-volume biography of Churchill.

When he graduated from high school in 1969 he was voted most enthusiastic, "which in 1969, when America was inflamed, is probably something to be embarrassed about," he admits.

Tall, dark and camera-handsome, he attended Ithaca College in Ithaca, N.Y., and then spent a year as a TV weatherman at a local station. But he says he was too stiff to ad-lib on camera. In 1974 he joined ABC, supervising studios for soap operas and game shows. One day, he was told his boss's boss had taken a disliking to him, and that maybe he should look for another job. Offended, he interviewed later the same day at ABC Sports.

"It drove me not to remorse, but to aggressiveness. It was, 'I've got to take care of myself,'" Mr. Iger says now.

And so he did. He won six promotions in 11 years at ABC Sports and grew into a shrewd negotiator, which would come in handy in Hollywood. From the longtime ABC Sports head Roone Arledge, Mr. Iger learned the axiom "Never accept no for an answer." Mr. Iger never puts a price on the table first. "I like to be told what it takes."

Mr. Iger bid for the biggest events and dickered over dozens of fight deals with the likes of Don King, the wild-haired boxing promoter. By flattering first and admonishing later, he learned to handle such challenges as trouble on the set of "Roseanne." Mr. Iger describes several "frank and fruitful" talks with the temperamental star of ABC's No. 1 series.

In the summer of 1988 he moved up to a job in the corporate group that oversees ABC. Seven months later he was named to head ABC Entertainment, succeeding tinsel town's beloved Brandon Stoddard, a filmmaker at heart who stepped aside suddenly last spring to run ABC's in-house production company.

In Hollywood, a change at the top means bulldozing dozens of projects and ousting key players. Mr. Iger was happy to inherit both kinds of assets. He has hardcore business skills that aren't the forte of his deputies, Ted Harbert and Stuart Bloomberg, both 12-year veterans at ABC Entertainment. They, in turn, have creative and programming experience Mr. Iger lacks. Mr. Bloomberg, a bespectacled, curly haired 40-year-old, oversees all new-series development. Mr. Harbert, 34, handles current shows and scheduling. He watches six TV sets scattered through his three-bedroom home; as a child, he memorized the TV Guide listings every week.

Mr. Iger needed all the help he could get when he parachuted into the job. He had only six weeks left to pick new fall shows from Mr. Stoddard's pilots. One was for "Twin Peaks."

The show's creators, David Lynch and TV producer Mark Frost, had first pitched the artsy soap opera months earlier in a 10-minute meeting with Mr. Stoddard's drama head, Chad Hoffman. The concept: A small town is rocked by the murder of a good girl with sordid secrets.

Mr. Lynch in "Blue Velvet" had given the film world the creeps with vivid images that may never be ready for prime time. That movie served up a severed ear and sadomasochistic sex. In "Eraserhead" a misfit nurtures a monstrously deformed newborn.

As it happened, Mr. Iger loved the director's movies. "Blue Velvet," he explains with admiration, "slapped you in the face. It did things to me." As for its kinkier aspects, Mr. Iger notes, "I don't take part in such rituals, nor do I advocate that anyone else should – nor would I put it on the air." But he does believe that in an era of jaded viewers distracted by a dizzying array of entertainment possibilities, the traditional network diet of whitebread TV series, "may not be enough today."

Convincing the network brass was a bit harder. They just didn't get Mr. Lynch's style. "I was baffled by it," admits ABC President Mark Mandala, "but we were all 50-plus white males." Mr. Iger suggested showing it to a more diverse, younger group. "Unanimously, they loved it," Mr. Mandala says. (The show continues to do well with precious 18-to-49-year-olds, as well as hooking a number of people who rarely watch TV, and women over 50.)

Mr. Iger persuaded the brass to buy seven episodes at $1 million a piece – a standard cost. Some executives took comfort in thinking it would never get on the air. Then Mr. Iger sought to schedule it for the spring. The final debate came down to a bi-coastal conference call between Mr. Iger and a room full of New York executives. Mr. Iger won, but many of the others were still queasy.

"I wasn't a big fan. Bob was the one that persevered," says his boss, John Sias, No. 3 at Capital Cities/ABC. Mr. Iger argued that putting the risk-taking show on the air was critical to the image ABC was cultivating in Hollywood. "When he says that to me, he'll get what he wants," says Chairman Thomas Murphy. "We're only as good as the {producers} we work with."

Particularly heartening to Hollywood was the fact that Mr. Iger gave David Lynch and Mark Frost free rein. Soon they had created a roster of odd characters – the Log Lady clutches a small log and may know about the girl's murder. FBI agent Dale Cooper babbles compulsively, even about the office doughnuts. Nadine wears a black eye patch and is obsessed with hanging drapes.

Things got especially strange in last Thursday's episode: A dream sequence had the FBI man chatting with the murder victim – and with a well-dressed midget who talks backward and boogies to sleepy jazz. "Now that," says Mr. Iger's boss, Mr. Sias, "was bizarre. Even by David Lynch standards, that was weird."

Depending on whether tonight's ratings match the strong start, Mr. Iger may decide as early as this week whether "Twin Peaks" is a glorified fluke, or whether it can join the ABC lineup for the new TV season that starts next fall. He faces a bigger test in mid-May, when he must choose about six new series from 30 pilots vying for the new fall schedule.

Unlike this year's lineup which was largely inherited from his predecessor, next year's will have all been ordered on his watch.

Some producers, their interest piqued by the creative liberty Mr. Iger gave the creators of "Twin Peaks," are coming to ABC. James L. Brooks, the successful filmmaker who also co-produces "The Simpsons" and "The Tracy Ullman Show," on Fox Broadcasting Co., was courted by all three networks. But he recently signed an exclusive new-series deal with Mr. Iger, who invoked the freedom accorded "Twin Peaks" and "CopRock."

Mr. Iger fashioned an unusually loose deal for the producer. Mr. Brooks gets cash up front and doesn't have to deliver any series by any deadline. Mr. Iger offered it without a price, which came later. Smart ploy: "It wasn't a matter of money at all," says producer Mr. Brooks. "It was the atmosphere for doing the work, and how committed they seemed to the shows that we might come up with."

Many of the building blocks for a turnaround are already in place at ABC. The network has already gained ground on Sundays with the hit "America's Funniest Home Videos," developed under the TV-loving Mr. Harbert. But the network has been unable to find a follow-on show that can hold the audience. "Elvis" flopped despite critical raves. ABC also needs to fix a hobbling Saturday lineup and fill other gaps. As Mr. Iger & Co. search for new shows, the question since the "Twin Peaks" success is how far they can go.

An ABC pilot called "The Danger Team," for example, has a lady private eye aided by three tiny, clay-animation guys. They include Nitt, "a Harpo Marx type who doesn't speak but makes noises," says Leslie Moonves of Lorimar Television, which produced the pilot. "I can't believe I'm a grown man having this conversation."

Mr. Iger, however, seems ready to err on the side of risk. Inevitably, he will brook some failures too. Earlier this week for example, he abruptly canceled "Capital News," a new, though hardly daring series about a Washington newspaper, after only a pilot and two episodes had aired. He had already paid for a full 13 episodes and now concedes, "as a businessman, it was a bad decision."

If anything, the demise of the more traditional series may embolden Mr. Iger further on his course of provocative shows. He professes that the only rules come down to "No rules." "We're explorers hoping to discover something," he proclaims. "There's always that possibility that we're going to step beyond what the viewer wants."

Dennis Kneale
The Wall Street Journal, 26 Avril 1990

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