ABC’s new top dogs

Mouse exex must spell success at Alphabet

The fate of ABC now rests in the hands of Anne Sweeney, Steve McPherson and Mark Pedowitz.

The three execs all bring hefty credentials to the stage, but have mostly toiled under the Disney radar. Until now.

Sweeney, who presided over the ascendancy of the Disney Channel as a young-audience powerhouse and has launched several successful cable channels, has now been handed her toughest and most visible challenge yet: Saving ABC. McPherson, who agonized over the loss of several shows he had wanted to produce (“CSI”) — but was overruled from above — will now get the chance to call most of his own shots.

And Pedowitz — who, like the Wizard of Oz, was the mastermind behind some of ABC’s biggest deals over the past decade — is now stepping out from behind the curtain.

Ultimately, the spotlight will be brightest on Sweeney, who has been able to chalk up several successes without the glare of much publicity.

Her experience with youth-oriented fare at Disney and Nickelodeon may fit in with ABC’s renewed family-centric focus, while her experience launching scrappy FX Networks could help find ways to market ABC.

Sweeney’s recent track record is solid: Disney Channel chalks up more dollars from cable-operator fees than any other nationally distributed network except for ESPN and TNT. Both Toon Disney and Soap Net — also in her bailiwick — have added millions of subscribers, and with that, seen their viewership grow substantially.

Sweeney’s weak link remains ABC Family, which has suffered from sluggish ratings since Disney took over the network from Fox in 2002. Still, driven by stronger movies in primetime, ABC Family — which only came under Sweeney’s supervision late last year– has turned things around in the first quarter, with primetime increases across the board.

“If there are a couple of things I bring to this job, it’s business strategy, it’s a great love and passion and understanding of TV and the creative process, and it’s an ability to put a team together that is empowered to do great things,” Sweeney said.

Nonetheless, broadcast network TV is a supremely different beast.

Ultimately, Sweeney’s success or failure at the network will depend on how much autonomy she’s given from up above – and how much freedom she’ll give the execs under her.

That’s where McPherson comes in.

“Priorities No. 1 through 10 are clearly primetime,” Sweeney said. “That’s why we made the move of putting Steve in charge. He has terrific relationships in the community and he’s got a great eye for talent.”

McPherson’s name has been in play for several major jobs in recent years, including (until recently) the top studio job at the merged NBC Universal. (And while nothing’s locked in yet, it now seems as if current U television chief David Kissinger, in the wake of a strong selling season, will hold on to his post for at least another year).

With his contract up this summer, it was clear the Disney brass wanted to hold on to the exec — hence his new gig as ABC Primetime Entertainment prexy.

Endeavor partners Richard Weitz and Paul Haas said McPherson has the right pedigree for his new gig.

“I like that he has opinions, and whether it’s good or bad, he’s a straight shooter,” Weitz said, while Haas called McPherson “a survivor who can handle this job.”

McPherson had been head of Touchstone TV since June 2001, having joined the studio from NBC, where he handled development of shows like “NewsRadio.” The exec also served time at Fox, ABC Prods. and Witt-Thomas-Harris Prods.

Meanwhile, it’s also showtime for Pedowitz, who has made a name for himself through the years as one of television’s toughest business affairs executives. That’s made Pedowitz more than a few enemies in the business through the years — but it’s also earned him some begrudging respect in the TV community.

“He’s a smart guy and a leader in our field as a negotiator and businessman,” said UTA partner Jay Sures. “He’s pissed off a lot of people but ultimately he’s been looking out for ABC’s business, which is what he’s supposed to do.”

ICM TV head Bob Levinson said he believes McPherson and Pedowitz will work well together as network and studio chiefs.

“These are two people who can complement each other,” Levinson said. “They’ve already worked together for many years.”

But, Levinson added, it all comes down to how McPherson positions ABC’s fall lineup.

“He needs a lot of luck when he picks up those pilots,” Levinson said. “He’s got to find a hit show. All it takes is one.”

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