Steve McPherson is about to get a crash course in running a broadcast network.
The final weeks leading up to the May upfronts are the busiest time for any entertainment president — let alone someone who just inherited the job a few days ago. And down-in-the-dumps ABC was already facing a difficult tussle with advertisers, who are looking for a glimmer of hope that the Alphabet web might finally halt its downward spiral.
McPherson– whose biggest achievement at Touchstone has been supplying ABC with solid but unspectacular comedy successes such as “Hope & Faith” and “According to Jim”– suddenly has a lot more to worry about than how many of his shows are going to get picked up. An already precarious upfront season for the Alphabet just got a lot more complicated.
Over the next few weeks, McPherson will have to wade through a couple dozen pilots, attend endless scheduling meetings and lead strategy sessions — all while getting to know his new staff and adjusting to the politics of the network world.
And then, just three weeks from now, he’ll step on stage at Gotham’s New Amsterdam Theater and have to convince thousands of advertisers that ABC’s got the goods for a comeback, and that he’s the man to lead the revival.
With McPherson, ABC may finally have a leader with the combination of skills it needs: a fierce bulldog with a producing pedigree.
“In addition to his creative skills, he’s also known for being fiercely competitive, unafraid and passionate,” says 20th Century Fox TV prexy Gary Newman. “Those are qualities you need for that job. You can’t be meek and succeed.”
Friends call McPherson, who turns 40 in October and just recently got engaged, “a straight shooter.” Critics mention his sometimes ferocious temper, particularly when fighting for his passion projects.
While that kind of emotion makes for a strong studio chief, McPherson will soon discover that his new gig carries with it a need for more diplomacy. He’ll have to juggle the network’s needs vs. affiliate demands, advertiser pressure and Disney’s overriding desire to turn a profit by any means necessary.
“It’s a challenge to go from a studio to a network,” says one vet TV exec. “There’s a presumption that the job is all about just picking the best shows and you’ll win. Obviously it’s much more than that. You have to serve a whole new set of constituencies, from affiliates and the owned-and-operated stations to advertisers.”
And so, just as Leslie Moonves, Peter Roth and Gail Berman discovered before him, McPherson will find it takes a different set of skills to go from seller to buyer.
“Like anyone else who makes the transition, it’s an eye-opening experience and it will take time,” he said.
There is good news for McPherson: He’s not exactly a stranger to the ABC culture.
Many of the pilots he’ll be choosing from as he sets the net’s new sked are ones he developed at Touchstone. And thanks to the integration of ABC and Touchstone a few years ago, he’s also well-acquainted with all of his new direct reports.
What’s more, McPherson’s unexpected ascension — network insiders had figured Susan Lyne was keeping her gig — indicates he’s got the political savvy and salesmanship he’ll need in his new role.
“He’s not coming in completely raw,” says one observer. “Even though he was at the studio, he was one of Lloyd’s few direct reports, so he has a very good sense of what the job is. He was in the (ABC) building all the time, and he was brought in to talk about a lot of decisions. He’s by no means a neophyte.”
And he’s also deeply entrenched within the Hollywood creative community, having risen through the ranks via jobs at ABC Prods., Fox and NBC in addition to Touchstone.
That’s in contrast to his predecessors, Lloyd Braun and Susan Lyne, both of whom had plenty of moxie but lacked that lengthy creative background. It’s also more of a head start than Jeff Zucker had three years ago, when he moved from New York to run NBC’s entertainment division.
First big test for McPherson will be whether he’ll be able to give projects from outside studios an even shot against pilots he developed at Touchstone.
But contrary to some media reports, outside suppliers are far from panicked over the situation. They know that overriding McPherson’s sense of pride in his own development will be the exec’s gut instinct for survival.
“In the end, he’s not going to give a rat’s ass whether a show is from Touchstone or not,” says one insider. “He’s going to be ruthless in his desire to make ABC succeed.”
What producers are worried about, however, is the fact that a new set of eyes is deciding the fate of their projects. Shows that Braun and Lyne may have adored could leave McPherson cold.
“You’d be an idiot not to be concerned,” one rival studio insider said. “Personal taste is a huge factor in which shows get picked up. Network executives get invested in certain visions and ideas for their network.”
Madison Ave. was as surprised as anyone that Disney would toss out ABC’s leadership on the very eve of the upfront ad buy market, but without sounding fickle, media buyers say what ultimately matters is the Alphabet’s sked, not necessarily who makes the upfront presentation.
“Is it the greatest timing? No. But I’m not so concerned as to who’s running the shop so much as the product they put on their air,” Carat director for national broadcast Andy Donchin says.
A good chunk of the creative community is actually convinced McPherson’s promotion, as well as the decision to bring in cable guru Anne Sweeney as his boss, means little as long as Bob Iger remains in his job.
“What’s offensive is that all of these people over the last few years have taken the fall for Bob Iger and Michael Eisner’s failures,” one studio vet says. “And yet, somehow, they’ve managed to escape any blame.”
If Iger allows Sweeney and McPherson room to breathe and time to put their own imprint on the network, many industry insiders believe ABC has a shot at recovery.
Net has established a decent foundation of family comedies, and a few shows in the development pipeline — “Desperate Housewives,” the castaway drama “Lost” and a Jessica Simpson comedy –seem to have plenty of hit potential.
And as NBC demonstrated this winter with “The Apprentice,” one big hit can go a long way toward covering up other programming failures.
On the other hand, if McPherson isn’t given a wide berth, “This restructuring will just be a rearranging of the deck chairs,” one exec says.
“They need to change the culture at ABC, and that starts at the top.”
(Pamela McClintock contributed to this story.)