Mouse meltdown

ABC shuffles its exec deck amid continued misfires

This article was updated at 10:05 p.m.

Disney’s TV group is convulsing — again.

Trouble-plagued Alphabet web was ground zero of a massive Mouse House TV restructuring, with ABC Entertainment prexy Susan Lyne getting the sack — even though Disney prexy Bob Iger had publicly and privately expressed strong support for the exec as recently as last week.

Lyne will be replaced by Steve McPherson, 39, who was prexy of Touchstone Television and will now serve as prexy of ABC Primetime Entertainment. He had been considered a wild card in various restructuring scenarios regarding the web (Daily Variety, April 6.)

And as expected, Disney cable titan Anne Sweeney has been elevated to a new role overseeing all of the company’s TV operations, save ESPN.

Lyne’s exit comes two weeks after former ABC Entertainment Television Group chairman Lloyd Braun left his post after clashing with top Disney management (Daily Variety, April 6) — and just one month before the net unveils its primetime sked to advertisers. McPherson will now be front and center at ABC’s upfront presentation.

With Comcast and other critics still circling the Mouse House, the McPherson-Lyne shuffle was just one of a dizzying array of changes announced Tuesday:

  • ABC Entertainment Television Group exec VP Mark Pedowitz will replace McPherson as prexy of Touchstone Television, retaining both titles and gaining oversight of the studio’s creative and business affairs. He’ll report to Sweeney, who says she expects Pedowitz will tap a deputy to take charge of creative matters.

  • Sweeney and ESPN/ABC Sports chieftain George Bodenheimer will serve as co-chairman of the newly created Disney Media Networks unit, reporting directly to Iger. But while they share a title, the two execs will have very different duties.

    Sweeney will also assume the title of prexy, Disney-ABC Television, placing her in charge of all things TV at Disney, except for ESPN. Bodenheimer’s duties remain unchanged: He’s still prexy of ESPN, Inc. and ABC Sports.

    Word of Sweeney’s ascension first hit the street earlier this month (Daily Variety, April 5).

  • Alex Wallau, who had been prexy of the ABC Television Network, has been demoted to prexy of ABC Network Operations and Adminstration and reports to Sweeney. He’ll keep control of ABC News, ad sales and affil relations, but lose oversight of ABC Entertainment and ABC Daytime.

  • As expected, BBC America CEO Paul Lee has been tapped prexy of cabler ABC Family (Daily Variety, April 7) . He reports to Sweeney.

  • Disney Channel prexy Rich Ross has been upped to prexy of Disney Channel Worldwide, reporting to Sweeney.

  • McPherson will have oversight of development, current programming, marketing and scheduling for ABC Entertainment. He reports to Sweeney.

  • There’s no word yet on who will have oversight of ABC latenight, i.e. “Jimmy Kimmel Live.” Daytime, headed by Brian Frons, will report to Sweeney.

Though he’s been gone for days, ABC didn’t formally acknowledge Braun’s departure until Tuesday, saying only that he and Lyne had left to “pursue other interests.”

Given the poor performance of ABC’s primetime sked, the shakeup isn’t all that surprising.

Still, Lyne’s exit comes after Iger publicly indicated support for her at a Bear Stearns media conference in March.

“Our job is to support her and give her the time and the room to perform,” Iger said. “It does take time. I am probably the most impatient of anyone because my reputation is on the line.”

What’s more, top Disney brass has been hinting for weeks that Lyne was safe. Indeed, Lyne wasn’t told of her dismissal in favor of McPherson until Monday.

After word of Sweeney’s promotion leaked out, Iger told Lyne her job was secure, according to numerous people with knowledge of the situation. Lyne let Iger know she didn’t want a co-prexy position, and Iger seemed fine with that.

Nonetheless, it was clear Iger and Disney supremo Michael Eisner were looking to bring in a new set of eyes besides Sweeney. ESPN programming chief Mark Shapiro was approached about a job, but insiders said that prospect ended once word leaked out to the media.

While Lyne was being told she wasn’t going anywhere, Iger was talking to McPherson about a role at the network. It was clear neither McPherson nor Lyne were interested in sharing power, and Iger — with a push from Eisner, several insiders said — ultimately picked McPherson.

Lyne was informed of the decision Monday. Iger offered her what one source called “a non-job,” an undefined New York-based position that Lyne declined. Terms of her exit were still being negotiated late Tuesday.

“I’ve never seen someone treated so (poorly),” said one industry vet not known to be sympathetic to Lyne.

Iger has now become the TV world’s false prophet of executive stability. Just as his promise to keep Lyne in place turned out to be hollow, Iger made a similar pledge about former ABC Entertainment prexy Jamie Tarses in 1999.

Tarses left the network in August of that year, just three days after Iger denied a report in Newsweek that she was about to be ousted.

Iger met with the ABC and Touchstone troops in a quickly assembled 4:30 meeting Tuesday afternoon. He told the staff that he ultimately wanted one person in charge of ABC Entertainment, after years of two execs in the job.

According to insiders, Braun’s name was not mentioned by anyone– another sign of the bad blood between Iger and Braun.

When the floor opened for questions, just one hand raised, as a brave soul asked McPherson to describe how he differed from previous entertainment administrations.

McPherson told the crowd that he was a creative exec — that’s what comes first, he said, and everything else comes second.

With the tension thick, people attending the meeting said Iger tried to alleviate the situation by cracking a few jokes. But overall, it was an emotional day at the Alphabet web.

“Executives, important ones, were crying,” one insider said.

Iger’s press rep didn’t return calls. But caught at a Hollywood Radio and TV Society luncheon for Ted Koppel Tuesday, Iger said he wasn’t concerned about the fact that ABC’s new chief will be taking over just weeks before the net presents its lineup to advertisers.

“The face that should be out there to the advertisers is (the person) that’s going to be in charge,” Iger said, noting that he was named prexy of ABC in March 1989, just weeks before the net’s upfront.

Sweeney said that McPherson will have broad oversight over ABC’s primetime sked. New management structure seems to eliminate a layer of execs, something that could help McPherson turn ABC around.

Just as importantly, given Iger and Eisner’s rep for meddling, Sweeney made it clear that she will be in charge.

“I will run the division,” she said. “I will bring the resources that we need to run the division. I’ve enjoyed a tremendous amount of autonomy since I joined the company.”

But, even Sweeney admitted that the network faces an uphill battle as it attempts to turn the tide.

“It’s never just one thing, never one show, one marketing campaign, never one misstep on the schedule,” she said. “Those are all of the things I’ll be getting into as of today.”

McPherson supervised development of “CSI: Crime Scene Investigation,” “Scrubs” and “Monk” — shows passed on by ABC that became big hits elsewhere.

At ABC, his successes include comedies “According to Jim” and “Hope & Faith” as well as drama “Alias.”

Reaction around town was mixed, with agents and rival execs scratching their heads about the departure of Lyne — but adding that the net made the right decision in bringing over McPherson (see story, page 16).

Alphabet’s primetime perf made some sort of change inevitable.

ABC remains in last place, far behind the other major nets. Not a single one of its comedies or dramas ranks in the top 25 with viewers 18-49. And it hasn’t launched a breakout drama hit since “The Practice” bowed in 1997.

There have been a few positive developments since last fall: Execs relaunched a classic ABC brand by introducing a Friday night comedy block under the familiar “TGIF” banner. Net’s sophomore laffers got off to a strong start following a summer promo push. But thanks to Comcast and some dissident Disney board members — as well as a midseason primetime slump at the net — ABC’s woes are once again front and center in the debate over Eisner’s leadership of the Mouse House.

“It was (former Capital Cities chief) Tom Murphy who said, ‘Every day you wake up and get a report card on how you’re doing,'” recalled one high-level agent. “If you look at that report card, they’re getting killed again.”

A slew of exec changes over the past few years has failed to make an impact on the net’s overall performance.

Since Disney took control of ABC, management has recruited execs such as Jamie Tarses, Pat Fili-Krushel, Stu Bloomberg, Steve Bornstein, Bob Callahan, Wallau, Braun and Lyne for key roles. Despite all the shuffling, the net has yet to turn around, except for a brief respite when “Who Wants to Be a Millionaire” was a hit.

“NYPD Blue” exec producer Steven Bochco, like many Hollywood insiders, seemed surprised by news of Lyne’s exit.

“I’m really sorry to see her go,” he said. “I’m real fond of her, and she’ll be missed.”