I started out looking for a needle in a haystack before realizing the real story was the state of the haystack.
I initially set my sights on answering the question of what ABC's eight O&O stations plan to do next year with the key time period (the lucrative 3 p.m. news lead-in slot in most markets) now occupied by Katie Couric's Disney-distributed syndicated talkshow.
Give Couric some credit on the daytime show for not going the sleazy who's-your-baby-daddy route. Yet she earned demerits in the eyes of some station affiliates for a perceived indifference to the stiffness of the show. In syndication, when you lose your g.m.'s in flyover country, you got problems.
But the more questions I asked about the fate of a single time period, the more questions were raised about the status of ABC overall within the Disney empire.
By any measure, these are boom times for the Magic Kingdom. Disney's investments in boldface brands like Marvel and Pixar are paying the expected dividends, as Lucasfi lm undoubtedly will in quarters to come. ESPN is a money-minting machine, even if the margins are getting squeezed by higher sports programming costs.
Disney-branded cablers are blooming overseas, while at home the channels' star-making system feeds the multiplatform ambitions of the corporate mothership like no other. (A typical trajectory: Tween star gains following on Disney Channel, gets his or her own show, records album, launches merchandising lines, tours Disney parks, makes midbudget movie for studio or direct-to-vid unit, gets supporting role in next blockbuster. â¦ )
But ABC is a different beast. The broadcast network has been on a roller coaster ratings-wise throughout Disney's nearly 18-year tenure as its owner. The owned-stations group, the bedrock of former ABC parent Capital Cities, has held at 8-10 outlets during that time while its Big Four rivals went on shopping sprees in the early 2000s.
There have been persistent rumors in recent months that Disney is poised to shop its remaining O&Os. In the heated market for station real estate at the moment, the Mouse's stations in Gotham, L.A., Chi, Philadelphia and Houston would surely be hot targets for groups such as Gannett Co., Hearst or Sinclair Broadcast Group.
The seeming lack of urgency within Disney to find a heavyweight program for the O&Os to fi ll the void left by Couric -- who was the bet to replace Oprah Winfrey's show, which helped ABC's stations remain dynamos in daytime for 25 years -- also speaks volumes.
All of this talk makes Disney-ABC insiders crazy. There is no truth to the station sale rumors, reps insist, and ABC's ups and downs are hardly unusual in the cyclical primetime business. The broadcast network remains a content engine for the company at a time when Disney is experimenting with new distribution models, and outside digital and international outlets are paying big bucks for off-network programming. Of course, Disney CEO Bob Iger grew up in the ABC ranks. During Disney's most recently quarterly earnings call, Iger tamped down recent speculation about a possible sale of any ABC assets, noting that the stations "have been run extremely well" and adding: "I don't think it would be wise to either predict or to conclude that these assets are on the market."
But assurances that nothing is happening today can't quell speculation about the future. The lukewarm response of auds to ABC's big bet on "Marvel's Agents of SHIELD" says much about the limits of extending the corporate brand-wagon to the Alphabet. Maybe the series would have done better overall as a younger (and frankly cheaper) play for ABC Family or Disney XD, which would seem a better demo fit anyway for stoking interest in "The Avengers" sequel coming in 2015.
ABC's "Once Upon a Time" has been an interesting experiment in Disney character quilt-making, but it's also easy to see that show as a marquee cable entry.
The network's challenge in plugging the hole on the O&Os in daytime (additional local newscasts are a likely stopgap) is the same that the network faces in primetime, and not just for Disney-centric reasons amid the general market upheaval for broadcast nets. When there's fog on the horizon, it's easy to head down the wrong road.