Exec talks Reilly's departure, Washington hire

No, he’s not taking it back. And yes, he really does wonder whether a rival exec is “clueless or stupid.”

Forgoing the usually sedate bearing of network execs during the Television Critics Assn. press tour, ABC Entertainment prexy Steve McPherson — who prides himself on making unfiltered statements to the press — unleashed an unusually pointed assault Wednesday against new NBC Entertainment co-chair Ben Silverman.

In a gaggle with reporters after the formal Q&A sesh, McPherson boldly asserted that if a widely repeated Silverman statement relating to NBC’s casting of Isaiah Washington in “Bionic Woman” was to be believed, Silverman is “either clueless or stupid.”

The session provided a finishing kick to the summer tour, which thus far has mostly consisted of snooze-inducing sessions, periodically interrupted by manufactured controversy (Star Jones refuses to tell us where she’ll reveal her weight loss secrets!) or unintentional gaffes (NBC Entertainment co-chair Marc Graboff’s “Kevin Reilly wasn’t fired” explanation).

But Wednesday morning, sleep-deprived critics decided to let McPherson have it — odd, considering they’re mostly fans of ABC’s shows, and the net’s “Pushing Daisies” is among their faves — and McPherson gave it right back.

Ultimately, the formal interview session was abruptly cut short, even though a controversy was quickly resolved over who would get some news about “Lost” first: pale, blurry-eyed TV geeks locked inside a ballroom at the TV Critics tour, or pale, blurry-eyed TV geeks locked in a ballroom at Comic-Con.

ABC bowed to the ire of the assembled critics, and McPherson announced that actor Harold Perrineau would return to the series he left in 2006.

Then, after his onstage formal sesh, McPherson was asked by a small group of reporters in the Beverly Hilton lobby about NBC’s decision to hire the deposed “Grey’s Anatomy” star Washington for “Bionic Woman.” That’s when the real sparks flew.

Appalled at how NBC summarily dismissed Kevin Reilly in favor of Silverman last month, McPherson had some harsh words for the man who replaced his longtime pal at the Peacock.

McPherson at first took critics to task for not hammering Silverman on the Washington hire.

“You guys let him off the hook — but that’s your prerogative,” McPherson said.

The exec noted that Silverman never addressed some of the issues that got Washington cut from “Grey’s Anatomy” in the first place — and also pointed out that Silverman may have crossed a legal line when he told the TCA horde that he’d approached the thesp even before Washington left “Grey’s Anatomy.”

“If (Silverman) was talking to Isaiah before he was let out of his contract, that was a breach,” McPherson said. “He’s either clueless or stupid.”

McPherson then criticized Silverman for ducking a question about Reilly’s departure during the Peacock portion of press tour.

Indeed, when a reporter asked Silverman last week about whether the Peacock had made a sound business decision in firing Reilly, Silverman didn’t mention Reilly in his response, instead offering that “I only arrived…so all I can say is we’re really excited about what we’re doing today.”

McPherson took offense at that answer, given Reilly’s early support of the Peacock’s Silverman-produced comedy “The Office” — which ultimately benefited Silverman and his Reveille shingle. (McPherson and Reilly happen to be old college pals.)

“The idea that ‘I just got here,’ ” McPherson scoffed. “Kevin Reilly stood up for ‘The Office’ and in essence made Reveille a ton of money.”

McPherson further admonished Silverman for not owning up to his part in a sticky exec shuffle: “Be a man,” he said.

Told that Silverman may not have known what was going on behind the scenes at NBC, McPherson said, “He didn’t know what went on? Was he living in a cave?

“I live in a different world,” McPherson added. “When someone stabs your best friend in the back, you don’t buy it.”

As for NBC Entertainment co-chairman Marc Graboff’s technically accurate assertion that Reilly wasn’t fired, McPherson chuckled.

“You got as big a laugh as I did,” he said.

In the end, McPherson said Reilly “more than landed on his feet” by joining Fox earlier this month as entertainment prexy (Daily Variety, July 10).

NBC declined comment on McPherson’s comments; Silverman was out of the country on Wednesday. In response, a Peacock insider defended the net, arguing that NBC floated its interest to Washington in case he became available, which is routine Hollywood practice, he said. The Graboff comment, he added, was meant to “show some dignity” to Reilly.

The NBC exec also expressed surprise that McPherson would target Silverman, given the latter’s involvement as a producer who was the driving force behind the packaging of ABC’s Emmy-nominated frosh hit “Ugly Betty.”

“Ben’s producing a show for him that just received 11 Emmy nominations,” he said. “Now he’s pissing on him?”

But despite his unhappiness with what happened to Reilly, McPherson said he doesn’t take personally his competition with NBC or any other net.

“I think we’re always competing as networks,” he said, noting that perhaps the nets should do a better job competing against the wide variety of new platforms now available to consumers.

Earlier, during his formal sesh, McPherson announced, after much cajoling, that Perrineau, who took last season off from “Lost,” will return next year in the pivotal role of Michael.

Perrineau’s return was originally planned to be announced by series exec producers Damon Lindelof and Carlton Cuse at this weekend’s Comic-Con convention. But the critics — arguing that their editors are pressuring them to break more news from the press tour — began to stage a mini-mutiny when McPherson said Lindelof and Cuse wanted to save the news for the fan convention.

“I’ve cast Don Imus on ‘Lost,’ ” McPherson quipped, when several critics pressed him on the matter.

A quick phone call was made by ABC’s PR team to Lindelof, who gave the greenlight to announce Perrineau’s return early.

Meanwhile, McPherson also confirmed that frosh laffer “Cavemen,” which has already recast one of its leads, is currently being reworked. The original pilot, which will now air as an episode for later in the season, jumped too far ahead without developing its main character relationships, he said.

“In essence, we’re shooting a new pilot,” McPherson said. “We have to develop these characters and who they are, so we’re just not diving into relationships they don’t understand.”

Critics are much more keen on “Pushing Daisies,” which has earned more raves than just about any other new show this fall. Because of its quirky nature and tough timeslot, McPherson said the net will “spend a lot of money and a lot of effort launching in that spot. It’s a good anchor for that night.”

Asked if the show’s fanciful nature may be tough to maintain, McPherson noted that at its core, “Pushing Daisies” is a procedural “whodunit” murder mystery of the week.

“Women’s Murder Club” also reps an ABC effort to create a procedural franchise, he said. The net is bullish on the show, which will launch on Friday — but McPherson said he considered the night an incubator for “Women’s Murder Club,” which “can work for us at 9 and 10 across our schedule,” he said. “So we’re excited about the possibilities there, whether it stays on Friday or moves to another night.”

One theme coming out of this year’s ABC sked: Given what has been working on the Alphabet (“Desperate Housewives,” “Ugly Betty,” “Grey’s Anatomy”), lighter fare is in.

“You won’t see dark cop dramas or downtrodden dramas,” McPherson said.

As for ratings, McPherson said he was “disappointed” with ABC’s perf this summer (albeit encouraged by early returns on newly launched hidden-camera comedy “Just for Laughs”), adding that the net may try out some scripted fare next summer — although the cost model remains a tough barrier to entry.

“There are good ones out there and mediocre ones that have perfor
med well,” McPherson said of the flurry of cable series this year.

The exec also believes this spring’s industrywide network slump was caused in part by DVR use. He cited “Lost,” which in Los Angeles posted a 4.2 rating with adults 18-49 but a 7.2 when “Live-Plus-Seven” DVR usage was factored in.

“That’s a gigantic difference,” he said.

Still, McPherson said he feels “really good about where we ended up at the end of this year.” Compared to last year’s aggressive fall launch — including the move of “Grey’s Anatomy” to Thursday night — this fall’s rollout is rather stable, he said.

Net announced one change from its original fall sked: Newsmag “20/20″ will move, at least temporarily, from its longtime Friday at 10 p.m. slot down to 8 p.m. on the night. “Men in Trees” swaps with “20/20″ for the 10 p.m. position.

ABC’s fall begins Monday, Sept. 24, with 90-minute editions of “Dancing With the Stars” and “The Bachelor”; “Samantha Who?” joins the night on Oct. 15.

On Tuesday, Sept. 25, “Dancing” will air a special 90-minute results show; the rest of the night’s shows (“Cavemen,” “Carpoolers,” “Boston Legal”) slide into their normal slots on Oct. 2.

A special “Dancing” episode will air Wednesday, Sept. 26, along with “Private Practice” and “Dirty Sexy Money”; newbie “Pushing Daisies” launches the next week.

Thursday launches intact (“Ugly Betty,” “Grey’s Anatomy,” “Big Shots”) on Sept. 27. Sundays return Sept. 30 with a two-hour “Extreme Makeover: Home Edition,” along with “Desperate Housewives” and “Brothers & Sisters”; “America’s Funniest Home Videos” is back Oct. 7.

The net’s Friday night — “20/20,” “Women’s Murder Club” and “Men in Trees” — bows Oct. 12.

Then there’s ABC’s first midseason entry, “Cashmere Mafia,” which will get a sneak preview on Tuesday, Nov. 27, at 10 p.m. (behind the “Dancing” finale), then slide into its normal 9 p.m. slot the following week.

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