ABC programming unit merges with production

Stephen McPherson has expanded his domain at Disney.

ABC’s programming chief has taken on oversight of the ABC Studios production wing in the long-awaited restructuring of Disney-ABC TV Group, announced Thursday in the shadow of the Oscar noms news.

Former ABC Studios prexy Mark Pedowitz has segued to a newly created role as senior adviser to Anne Sweeney, co-chair of Disney’s Media Networks division. Sweeney said Pedowitz would work closely with her on big-picture business issues, labor relations and new-media matters.

McPherson, who is now prexy of the newly created ABC Entertainment Group, will remain the hands-on exec overseeing ABC’s entertainment programming, while ABC Studios’ production chief Barry Jossen and biz affairs head Howard Davine will report to him.

Sweeney emphasized that the impetus for the restructuring was less cost-cutting than the desire to create a more “cohesive creative vision” for the network and studio. Still, it’s likely there will be some downsizing of staff as the creative and development departments are melded together in the next few months.

“The landscape of our business and an opportunity to coalesce the creative process dictated this change in creative structure,” Sweeney said in announcing the reorg.

ABC insiders said there would be no immediate layoffs and that McPherson would take his time in assembling the staff hierarchy for the combined units. Having served as prexy of the Mouse’s TV studio (then known as Touchstone TV) before moving to ABC, McPherson is very familiar with the staffing needs of both entities.

The timing of the restructuring announcement was driven by the fact that Pedowitz’s contract was about to expire, as well as the desire to make the new alignment clear to the creative community before pilot season gets into full swing.

McPherson’s new role is something he has long sought. He and Pedowitz were appointed to their previous posts at the same time, in April 2004, as ABC was in a deep slump that turned around in the 2004-05 season with the bows of the ABC Studios-produced “Desperate Housewives,” “Lost” and “Grey’s Anatomy.”

McPherson and Pedowitz have been known to butt heads at times, but there’s also no denying that the net and studio have had a solid run of success the past few years with hits including “Ugly Betty” and “Brothers and Sisters.” ABC Studios has also scored outside of the Alphabet with such skeins as the CBS drama “Criminal Minds” and Lifetime sudser “Army Wives.” With the restructuring, ABC Studios is expected to redouble its focus on ABC’s needs, though Disney’s announcement stressed that “when appropriate, the studio will look for outside opportunities.”

Pedowitz is known as an innovator in crafting business deals and templates going back to his long run at ABC prior to being named studio chief. He famously navigated in a matter of days the Mouse’s negotiations with Apple on Disney-ABC’s groundbreaking program licensing pact with iTunes in fall 2005. Pedowitz’s new role, Mouse insiders stressed, was tailored to suit his strengths as a thinker and strategist as new media become a bigger component of all aspects of Disney’s biz.

At the same time, there’s no doubt that the restructuring is another vote of confidence in McPherson’s programming skills from Sweeney and Disney prexy-CEO Robert Iger.

There’s also a bit of Mouse House history repeating itself with the decision to combine the net and studio operations. Shortly after McPherson joined what was then Touchstone Television a decade ago, Disney decided to streamline the management of the network entertainment wing and studio (then under Lloyd Braun) and have Touchstone supply the vast majority of ABC’s shows.

That merger coincided with a luckless streak of flops for both studio and net, while Disney decided under the new mandate to back out of a little show called “CSI” that McPherson developed for CBS. Over time, as Disney took a bath on all the losses racked up by the studio and net, the studio and network became more autonomous again, particularly after McPherson was upped to prexy of Touchstone in mid-2001.

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