Brandon Stoddard, the longtime executive who helped brings Roots to ABC and developed Schoolhouse Rock and the ABC Afterschool Specials, died today of cancer at his Bel-Air home. He was 77. He was inducted into the Television Academy Hall of Fame in March (watch his induction speech above).
Stoddard rose to President of ABC Entertainment in 1985 after 15 years with the network. During his tenure, ABC launched such landmark series as Roseanne, The Wonder Years, Twin Peaks, China Beach, Full House, and Thirtysomething. He also was President of ABC Productions, the network’s first in-house production company, and shepherded series including MTV’s My So-Called Life starring a young Claire Danes. In the late 1970s, he launched and was president of ABC Motion Pictures, a movie division that spawned the films Silkwood, Prizzi’s Honor and The Flamingo Kid.
But Stoddard likely is best remembered for ABC’s miniseries, which dominated in an era when such programming captivated audiences. Along with the groundbreaking adaptation of Alex Haley’s Roots, he shepherded such minis as The Winds of War, Roots: The Next Generation, The Thorn Birds, War and Remembrance, Rich Man, Poor Man and North and South.
At his TV Academy Hall of Fame induction ceremony, Stoddard recalled that some Southern stations refused to air Roots and he and his children received death threats. “I always believed TV shows should first and foremost entertain, but they should also enlighten and bring new ideas … to the audience. The audience is not dumb. They are as smart as you are. It is so easy to lose sight of the goal because of the huge pressure to succeed.” Here is a clip from his 2007 interview with the Archive of American Television in which Stoddard talks about difficulties selling ad time for Roots to some of ABC’s Southern affiliates:
In the Hall of Fame speech, he recalled being a college student and watching his father in court defending communists who were as “scary as a knitting club” back in the Smith Act era. His father, he said, had lost most of his other clients because he’d agreed to represent the communists. ”That day in court made a great impression on me,” he said. As an executive at ABC, he slated longform programs with “themes of freedom and justice,” including Roots and The Day After, about a nuclear attack on Middle America — which, he said, had no advertisers except popcorn king Orville Redenbacher, who “must have had a CPM of 12 cents.”
“Brandon was a true maverick who was instrumental in transforming prime time television,” Disney Chairman and CEO Bob Iger said in a statement. “His influence continues, and he will be missed by everyone who had the good fortune to know him.”
Aside from Stoddard’s longform and series credits, a generation of young TV viewers will remember a pair of ABC properties he shepherded: Schoolhouse Rock (1972-83) and ABC Afternoon Specials. (1972-97). The animated Schoolhouse shorts were teaching lessons set to music that helped kids learn basic math, grammar, science, civics and economics. Among the too-many-too-list memorable clips were “Three Is A Magic Number,” “Conjunction Junction,” “Electricity, Electricity” and “I’m Just A Bill,” which was revived as part of a Saturday Night Live sketch last month. ABC Afternoon Specials often tackled tough subjects for kids including racism, runaways, sexism, gangs, bullying, stepparents, drinking and drugs — playing to younger viewers without playing down to them.
Later in his career, Stoddard became an indie producer and adjunct professor at USC’s School for Cinema and Television.
He is survived by his wife, the journalist Mary Anne Dolan, daughters Alexandra Brandon Stoddard and Brooke Stoddard, and four grandchildren.