ABC sheds sked scheme

McPherson overhauls pilot screening, scheduling process

Barely a week into his new gig, ABC Primetime Entertainment prexy Steve McPherson is already shaking up the way the network sets its new fall sked.

McPherson has radically overhauled the Alphabet’s pilot screening and scheduling process, implementing a plan designed to result in more feedback from all levels of the net, numerous ABC insiders said. In recent years, the network’s sked-setting process was seen as exclusionary, with a small handful of top execs debating the merits of various pilots and sked scenarios among themselves.

What’s more, the screening process will begin sooner — this Monday — and last for a full week. Because of that scheduling decision, a number of top Disney execs will likely not be at many of the screenings.

Between the National Cable Television Assn. convention and the opening of the Tower of Terror attraction at Disney’s California Adventure, execs such as Michael Eisner, Bob Iger and Anne Sweeney will have a number of previous commitments. As a result, they may opt out of many of next week’s formal screenings.

Sweeney will likely still be able to catch some screenings in New York, where many of ABC’s sales staff will watch the would-be shows. Eisner and Iger may also stop by the screenings or watch DVDs of new shows.

Among the changes implemented by McPherson:

  • Mirroring elements of NBC and Fox pre-upfront meetings, shows will be screened by several groups of staffers, with top execs in the same room as lower-level staffers. A group leader in each room will lead feedback sessions after each show.

    In recent years, a small number of very senior brass met in one room to discuss pilots, while one or two much larger groups met in separate rooms. Under that arrangement a VP of drama might never have had a chance to give feedback on a pilot to ex-entertainment prexy Susan Lyne.

  • After the morning screenings, McPherson will lead a working lunch session with all screening participants to discuss opinions of shows. A similar meeting will be held in late afternoon.

  • Assistants will screen pilots separately, but McPherson is expected to seek input from that group each day.

  • Scheduling process will be expanded to a full week, with meetings starting May 10. In recent years, sked meetings were crammed into as little as two days.

  • McPherson has asked ABC’s pilot testing department to cut to the chase when presenting data from focus groups. Charts and graphs will be downplayed in favor of concise descriptions of aud reactions.

    One ABC staffer said the changes should result in a better pilot picking process.

“You had an entire company that was divested of the process at the end of the year,” the insider said. “People worked hard on these shows all year long, but at the end of the day, they felt no one cared what they thought.”

McPherson’s changes are no doubt inspired by his previous gigs at NBC and Fox. “They have a much more collaborative system” at those networks, one insider said.

It’s expected McPherson will invite screening attendees to be blunt in their assessments of new shows. One insider said the exec wants to make sure senior execs, including himself, aren’t stuck in a cocoon when making decisions.

“There could be a project all (the top brass) love but 20 assistants hate,” the insider said.

ABC chief in command

Sweeney is said to have signed off on McPherson’s plan. That the screenings aren’t being planned around the schedule of some senior Disney execs also seems designed to send a signal that, in a departure, the head of entertainment at ABC is now in command of the screening process.

McPherson has had a busy first 10 days in office, a frame that even included an unpublicized whirlwind trip to New York, where he met with ABC sales brass.

An ABC spokesman and McPherson declined comment.

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