Disney plucks another rising star from cable

The executive shakeup that went down at ABC Tuesday evening echoes the shuffle that rocked the Mouse House last fall on the film side.

Once again, Disney chief Bob Iger has turned to a hot-shot exec in the cable realm to take the reins of an operation that insiders say Iger views as in need of a rethink of the way it does biz. Just as former Disney Channels Worldwide chief Rich Ross was installed atop the Mouse’s film wing, ABC Family prexy Paul Lee has been recruited to take the reins of the ABC Entertainment Group from Stephen McPherson, who was abruptly axed on Tuesday.

Mouse insiders cautioned that Lee has not yet signed on the dotted line for the job — but certainly this is an offer from Iger and Disney-ABC TV Group prexy Anne Sweeney that he can’t refuse.

The timing of the exec handover struck many as odd. Lee is out of the office on vacation this week. McPherson just returned from a few weeks of vacation on Monday but did not return to ABC’s Burbank offices.

The choice of Lee comes as no surprise to Disney insiders. ABC Family has been on a hot streak in the past year with buzzworthy original series such as “Pretty Little Liars,” “Huge,” “The Secret Life of the American Teenager,” “Greek” and “Make it or Break It.” Lee has demonstrated a flair for connecting with the older teen and young adult set (or “millennials” in marketing-speak) that Disney execs see as the next generation of ABC viewers. “Pretty Little Liars” bowed in June to 2.5 million viewers, a big showing by ABC Family standards.

However, industry insiders noted that Lee will face a steep learning curve as he segues from a handful of original series to 22 hours of primetime programming a week on the Alphabet. He has made connections in the creative community over the past few years but will have to work fast, with the fall season approaching, to build relationships with ABC’s top producers such as Shonda Rhimes (“Grey’s Anatomy”), Marc Cherry (“Desperate Housewives”), Greg Berlanti (“Brothers and Sisters,” the upcoming “No Ordinary Family”), Steven Levitan and Christopher Lloyd (“Modern Family”) and Bill Lawrence (“Cougar Town”).

“I think Paul has built a great brand at ABC Family,” said WME senior agent Ari Greenburg. “He is not a snob when it comes to writers, and he has great taste.”

Within Disney, Lee is highly regarded by Iger and Sweeney for successfully rehabilitating the cabler that had been a black eye for Disney for years until Lee took the helm in 2004. Disney was roundly criticized on Wall Street for overpaying in its $5 billion purchase of Fox Family Worldwide (which included the then-Fox Family Channel) in 2001. The Mouse went through several execs in the top ABC Family job before Lee was recruited from BBC America, which he founded in 1998 and ran as a joint venture with the Beeb and Discovery Communications.

Lee is known to be close with Sweeney, in contrast with McPherson who had a chilly relationship with his boss.

Before coming to the U.S., Lee held several exec roles at the BBC in Britain. He started his career as a reporter, assigned to cover the strife in Belfast, Northern Ireland in the 1980s.

Lee’s pending appointment at ABC makes him the second Brit (after Fox’s Peter Rice) to oversee programming for a Big Four network. (A third Brit, Paul Telegdy, heads up alternative fare for NBC.)

McPherson’s departure marks the end of a roller-coaster tenure for the exec, who was a key architect of ABC’s turnaround in the 2004-05 season.

In his previous role as prexy of Touchstone TV, McPherson developed megahits like “Desperate Housewives” and “Grey’s Anatomy” — and then hopped over to ABC Entertainment, where as prexy he made an immediate mark by championing aggressive marketing campaigns for “Lost” and “Housewives” in the fall of 2004.

The exec was rewarded with a long-desired expansion of duties in January 2009, adding ABC Studios to his domain as ABC Entertainment Group. McPherson had another year to go on his contract at ABC.

But McPherson’s track record has been spotty in recent seasons. He managed to launch a comedy block this year — something ABC had been lacking — with “Modern Family.”

“Modern Family,” however, was produced by 20th Century Fox TV — which means the Alphabet didn’t get to share in that comedy’s recent off-net riches (having been sold to USA for a strong $1.4 million an episode).

ABC also struggled to duplicate the success of “Lost,” with shows like “FlashForward,” “Invasion” and “Life on Mars” failing to get any traction. And as “Housewives” and “Grey’s Anatomy” age, the net is in need of a few new femme-centric hits.

As a result, the Alphabet ended the season just barely squeaking out a third-place finish ahead of NBC –essentially tying the Peacock with a 2.7 rating and 7 share among adults 18-49, well behind Fox and CBS. Ditto total viewers, as ABC ended the season with 8.7 million, just ahead of NBC (8.3 million).

Alphabet spent a huge chunk of change on development this season, and picked up a whopping 10 new series for next season. Yet reaction from critics and media buyers was tepid (although, to be fair, the reaction to all of the networks was subdued this year).

McPherson was well-known for his personality clashes, inside and outside ABC. He occasionally sparred with reporters — and was known for shooting out angry emails to scribes when he didn’t agree with something that had been written.

With Sweeney, McPherson maintained a shaky peace, but industry observers predicted that the strains in that relationship contributed to McPherson’s exit.

One tenpercenter noted that McPherson’s “mood swings” had increased during the past year, complicating business at ABC.

McPherson, however, has never shied away from being passionate about the work — and has admitted that things have gotten heated from time to time around his office. He’s also known for exhibiting fierce loyalty — such as when his longtime buddy Kevin Reilly was axed by NBC in favor of Ben Silverman.

At the following TCA press tour, after Silverman didn’t elaborate on the circumstances that led to Reilly’s NBC exit, McPherson told reporters that Silverman should “be a man.” (Silverman later called McPherson a “moron” in Esquire magazine.)

McPherson’s exit comes after 12 years at Disney, having first joined the company in 1998 as exec VP of Touchstone Television (now ABC Studios). While there, McPherson famously developed “CSI: Crime Scene Investigation” — only to see Disney decide to drop out of that show, a multi-million dollar blunder by his bosses.

He also developed “Monk,” which became a breakout hit for USA and the foundation for that network’s cable scripted dominance; as well as “The Amazing Race,” “Scrubs” and “Alias.”

Before Touchstone, McPherson was VP of primetime series at NBC, and also held jobs at ABC Prods., Fox and Witt-Thomas-Harris.

Despite all of the recent rumors and ABC’s shaky performance as of late, McPherson’s exit shocked Hollywood on Tuesday, as any potential ABC shuffle was expected to take place down the road, if at all.

And it definitely didn’t seem likely that such a restructure would take place a few days before TV Critics Assn. press tour. Yet the writing was on the wall for Alphabet execs by Tuesday — when staffers began to wonder why McPherson still hadn’t returned from his vacation as scheduled. It wasn’t until early evening that the network finally put out a statement, followed soon after by one from McPherson.

“I will be announcing my future plans shortly which will include a new entrepreneurial venture in the spirits business,” said McPherson, who’s a huge wine aficionado. “While I will continue with my ongoing wine business, I’ll also reveal plans for my involvement in a new media company.”

Inside ABC, employees were stunned — and wondering what might come next.By the end of the day, Disney had already scrubbed McPherson’s bio off its ABC press website.

“Maybe this means we’re now in for a hit season,” quipped on ABC insider — noting how networks appear to frequen
tly can their execs right before the new shows those toppers left behind turn into hits. (At least, that’s what happened to ABC in 2004, when shows developed by ousted ABC Entertainment toppers Lloyd Braun and Susan Lyne helped breathe life back into network.)

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