Rumors swirl about McPherson's sudden exit

The attention at ABC on Wednesday turned to new entertainment chief Paul Lee — and how his cable skills might translate to the broadcast net.

But the intrigue behind ABC Entertainment Group prexy Steve McPherson’s rash departure also grew. Industry execs scrambled to grab any scraps of gossip they could, as rumors spread of a specific incident or series of events that might have led to McPherson’s exit.

McPherson’s longtime attorney, Tom Hoberman, sought to dampen talk about an alleged internal investigation of harassment claims — or perhaps abusive emails — with a statement issued Wednesday afternoon.

“It is not uncommon for high- level executives to be the subject of gossip and innuendo,” Hoberman said in the statement. “That would includes rumors of internal situations which can easily be misinterpreted or misrepresented. Seems like it goes with the territory, and there is nothing further to discuss.”

Hoberman’s statement called the exec’s decision to resign “voluntary.”

Nonetheless, there was something different about McPherson’s exit compared to past high-profile executive ankles at the networks. McPherson on Tuesday quickly hired high-profile public relations vet Stan Rosenfeld, who has been through the crisis PR mill of late with client Charlie Sheen, to handle the fallout from his exit.

McPherson’s departure came so fast that ABC is suddenly left in the lurch for its Television Critics Assn. press tour session Sunday. With Lee on vacation in Britain, a deal has not been completely finalized with him to replace McPherson as head of ABC Entertainment and the ABC Studios production arm.

That leaves ABC without a network chief to hold an executive session. Network insiders said ABC isn’t planning on putting any of its execs on stage, instead leaving them available to reporters as they walk the halls of the Beverly Hilton.

That includes Disney-ABC TV Group prexy Anne Sweeney, who will surely be mobbed by reporters the moment she sets foot in the hotel.

Even if Lee manages to finalize his deal before ABC’s TCA day, he will not have had a chance to meet with his execs, talk to producers or even screen Alphabet series — so an exec session is still unlikely.

McPherson’s exit will likely dominate conversation throughout the rest of the TCA tour, and specifically ABC’s day, as producers will be asked for their take on the network upheaval.

The turmoil at the top comes as the Alphabet hits a crossroads with its primetime programming.

ABC is by no means in the deep slump it was six years ago when McPherson moved into the job. The net has a few big guns in its arsenal, notably laffer “Modern Family,” veteran sudsers “Grey’s Anatomy” and “Desperate Housewives” and reality dynamo “Dancing With the Stars.”

But there are also plenty of potholes in its primetime sked. Lee’s challenge will be to capitalize on its strength to help groom a new generation of tentpoles.

McPherson had struggled in the past few years on that score despite the network’s heavy investment in scripted programming. The reaction inside and outside Disney to the fresh crop of shows developed for the coming season has generally been lukewarm, which didn’t help McPherson’s cause. The most promising prospects include the Michael Chiklis supernatural family drama “No Ordinary Family” and cop show “Detroit 1-8-7.”

Lee made his mark after joining ABC Family in 2004, by identifying a clear audience niche for the cabler to target — young adults, leaning toward femmes — and then delivering a steady stream of original series and telepics that hit that bull’s-eye. ABC Family moved quickly to fill the void left by the demise in 2006 of the WB Network — it even picked up reruns of WB signature hits like “Smallville,” “Gilmore Girls” and “7th Heaven” to help attract that demo — and now the cabler is competitive with the WB’s successor CW, which also targets the young adult aud.

ABC Family logged its most-watched year ever in 2009, and it’s on track to top those personal bests this year. With an average primetime aud of 1.4 million viewers for the year to date, ABC Family ranks among cable’s top 10 in total viewers and adults 18-49, and in the top five among women 18-49, women 18-34 and teens.

As the biz digested the news of the abrupt exec shakeup at ABC, industryites who have worked with Lee gave him high marks for his bedside manner with talent.

Lee, a Brit who came to the States in 1998 to launch the BBC America cabler, is not an outsider to the creative community, but he also does not have too many deep relationships with top-tier scribes, producers, studio execs and tenpercenters that drive the traditional network TV production biz. He’ll undoubtedly be on a charm offensive with those folks when he starts his gig.

Lee is well-suited to the mission at ABC, say some who have worked with the exec.

“He’s decisive,” said Leslie Morgenstein, CEO of Alloy Entertainment, the shingle behind ABC Family’s summer hits “Pretty Little Liars” and “Huge.” “There’s not a lot of pussy-footing around with him. But he does it with a little humility and a good sense of humor.”

Brenda Hampton delivered ABC Family’s first big scripted hit two years ago with “The Secret Life of the American Teenager,” about an everyday teenage girl from a middle-class home who winds up pregnant and decides to keep the baby. Hampton had shopped the project all over town to no avail, until she brought six completed scripts to Lee and ABC Family exec veep Kate Juergens.

Hampton appreciates the hands-off approach Lee has maintained with the show, which trades in delicate subject matter. Lee demonstrated faith in Hampton’s ability to deliver a strong product thanks to her track record as the creator/exec producer of “7th Heaven.”

“I’ve had total creative freedom, within Disney boundaries,” Hampton said. “I like the way he runs the place. I think writers and producers will want to come work for him, because ABC Family has a reputation for letting us do what we want.”

Lee gives his creators a wide berth, but he’s quick to get involved when the need arises. Hampton had a beef at one point about the marketing of “Secret Life” and made her concerns known to the cabler. Soon, Lee was sitting in Hampton’s office to hash out the problem.

“He drove down the hill to my office to discuss it with me,” Hampton said. “He respects you and your concerns.”

Lee will have a harder time maintaining such a close connection to his producers when he inherits a job that comes with a far greater volume of original programming. But he’s also shown an ability to delegate to a strong exec team.

“He lets people do their jobs,” Morgenstein said. “He gives his input and than lets people go and do what they need to do.”

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