Here’s a million-dollar question that would stump even Regis Philbin: How does a network exec in charge of entertainment, news, sales, and marketing manage to fly so far beneath the media radar?
That’s the conundrum facing ABC Television Network president Pat Fili-Krushel (who, by the way, also oversees the net’s kids and sports programming). Granted, she hasn’t dated Matthew Perry (a la former ABC Entertainment prez and media lightning rod Jamie Tarses) or developed cozy relationships with the press (like her CBS counterpart Les Moonves), but even so, you’d think someone of Fili-Krushel’s status would be generating decent ink—especially now that she’s helped guide ABC to its best sweeps ratings in five years.
”Part of Pat’s charm is that she doesn’t get drunk with that kind of [power],” says Oxygen CEO and former Disney/ABC Cable Networks president Geraldine Laybourne. ”Pat can accomplish a lot more being Pat than trying to dress up as Les. And Les could never accomplish anything trying to be like Pat. There is plenty of room for different styles.”
Married with two children ages 7 and 9, Fili-Krushel started as a secretary in ABC’s sports department in the mid-’70s before leaving the company for programming stints at Lifetime (where she greenlit its first original prime-time series, The Days and Nights of Molly Dodd, after the cable net picked it up from NBC in 1989) and HBO (where she kicked off its original-movie production). She returned to ABC in 1993 to head daytime and worked her way through the ranks, reaching her current position in July 1998. Her most publicized accomplishments to date include closing a lengthy and sometimes contentious deal with ABC affiliates to pay for the net’s costly NFL package and championing The View when some were dead set against it.
”There were people trying to sabotage it within the network—people more powerful than she,” says Barbara Walters, who executive-produces the highly successful daytime talker. ”In her very quiet but firm way, she stood up and got it programmed. She is very smart, very effective, and has great hair.”
EW sat down with the well-coiffed Fili-Krushel and discussed her tenure, her battle with Steven Bochco over NYPD Blue, and, of course, the programming Godzilla that is Who Wants to Be a Millionaire.
How does it feel to be the most powerful woman in TV?
It’s certainly a privilege. It’s a challenging time to be in the business, but I’m glad I have the last year behind me. These jobs are so big, the learning curve so steep, and the responsibilities so wide that it takes a while to get your sea legs. But it’s a great challenge, no matter whether you’re a woman or a man.
Do you encounter certain expectations that people have for a woman at the helm?
I don’t come at things from that direction. [That] actually comes mostly from reporters. I’m sure that makes a much more interesting story. The reality is, I don’t think it matters one way or another. You just hope you got the job because you’re the right person for it.
CBS Television CEO Les Moonves is such a huge personality, as was former NBC West Coast president Don Ohlmeyer. Is it a problem that ABC doesn’t have a booming personality like that?
I don’t think that really matters. The proof is in the pudding in terms of what we deliver. My personality is not one where I need to be the center of attention. My audience is [ABC group chairman] Bob Iger and [Walt Disney Co. CEO] Michael Eisner. They’re the ones who decide if I stay in this job.
Do you have much of a presence in Hollywood?
My job is to make sure I have the right people in the right positions. Stu Bloomberg and Lloyd Braun run the entertainment division. Nothing goes on the air without a discussion, but they are the first line to the creative community. You can call and discuss things with me, but the buck should stop with [Bloomberg and Braun].
Did all the negative buzz over Jamie Tarses hurt ABC?
People forget really easily. She was young and therefore attracted media attention–part of which she brought on herself. These are big tough jobs and you live in a big fishbowl. A single, attractive woman? That’s great fodder for the press.
Would you have hired a wunderkind as ABC’s entertainment president?
Yeah, I would go for talent. I may support them in different ways. I may give them media coaching. In our business you see a lot of young people rise up the ranks very quickly, and they don’t have the kind of support they need. One thing Gerry Laybourne suggested to me long ago was a management coach. I had one for about 10 years.
Naysayers claim Millionaire‘s success masks a lot of problems on your schedule.
There are always shows that work better than others, that’s the business we’re in. The failure rate is 88 percent. Everyone talks about being one hit away from turning the network around. We got lucky this one hit happened to be a show that can run multiple times and take care of time periods that may have been underperforming. I think the other networks wish they had this show. It’s a juggernaut to deal with.
Do you fear an onslaught of game shows will dilute the value of Millionaire?
Millionaire has become such a cultural phenomenon, I don’t think other game shows will impact [it]. This business is built on people trying to copy other formats. Usually, the first one out of the box is not tainted too much.
In hindsight, would you have put Once and Again someplace else other than NYPD Blue‘s time slot?
If we hadn’t picked up Snoops, we probably would have put Once and Again on Sundays. But we liked the idea of putting it on Tuesdays, where we knew viewers were strong and Steven Bochco always delivered Blue late. We thought it was the best of both worlds.
Did Bochco broadside you when he complained to the press about your NYPD Blue discussions?
Obviously we would have preferred he not talk to reporters. We brought him into the process before we made a decision–Stu [Bloomberg], being the mensch that he is, spoke to Steven. Steven, obviously, was not happy.
Your network has managed to irritate some of its major talent this fall, first Bochco and now David E. Kelley with Snoops’ demise. Has there been fallout from that?
I can promise that David E. Kelley is not upset. He and Stu have a wonderful relationship, and they have been talking all along. I think in Stu’s zeal to be direct and honest, it actually came back to bite him with Bochco. It won’t come back to bite him with David.
One report said Diane Sawyer and Charlie Gibson may leave Good Morning America soon now that CBS’ Early Show hasn’t posed a threat.
Absolutely not. As long as they’re enjoying this, as long as they feel good about what they’re doing, we’re hopeful they will stay.
I’ve heard there’s talk of scaling back The Wonderful World of Disney.
You want Wonderful World of Disney to be special. The question we have internally is, What’s best for the Disney franchise and the time period? When there is talk about projects at Disney, it’s about exceeding expectations. That is their goal with Wonderful World of Disney. Can you exceed expectations? But it’s hard. That’s a lot of programming [every week]. We’re discussing internally whether there’s something better. Would 12 events be better? But then, what do you do with the time period? It’s under discussion.
With the success of Once and Again, Judging Amy, and Family Law, are older-skewing shows in and teen shows out?
Well, [teen shows] aren’t dead on The WB and Fox. Sitcoms are having a downturn, and this is the year of the drama. Next year, it will be the year of the game show. I don’t think anything can be read into it other than everybody had a fairly good year developing dramas.
Do you ever use that ”Go Away” sign that hangs on the back of your office door?
That was a Christmas gift from [former ABC exec VP of communications] Sherrie Rollins. I told her ”I’m sure one day, I’ll use it.” I haven’t.