Hunt For A Hit

Stephen McPherson has his work cut out for him. As ABC’s newly appointed programming president, turning the network around looks like a daunting task. From comedy to drama to the nonscripted genre, no hit series emerged this past season at ABC, which saw its ratings among adults 18-49 drop 13 percent. Last fall, ABC had been gaining momentum with family sitcoms—According to Jim, The George Lopez Show—that, in a rare case of corporate synergy, reflected parent company Disney’s own brand. All this despite the death of John Ritter, star of 8 Simple Rules for Dating My Teenage Daughter. In fact, the attention surrounding Ritter’s death seemed to drive more viewers to the network.

But by season’s end, Fox’s American Idol had laid waste to ABC’s Tuesday and Wednesday comedies. Even Friday’s newly reminted—and top-rated—TGIF lineup declined.

Dramas proved even more troubling for the network. All three of its freshman hours—Karen Sisco, 10-8, and Threat Matrix—were yanked from the schedule. The critically acclaimed midseason drama Line of Fire underperformed, as did Stephen King’s Kingdom Hospital.

Without a scripted hit, ABC’s The Bachelor remained the network’s top-rated program this season. But it, too, has witnessed ratings losses. And whether upcoming reality shows The Benefactor and Wife Swap can strike a cultural chord like NBC’s The Apprentice did remains to be seen.

McPherson is no stranger to network-TV politics. As president of Disney’s Touchstone Television for the past three years, he developed a string of successful series, some of which—Alias, My Wife and Kids—made ABC’s air while others—CBS’ CSI, NBC’s Scrubs—landed at other networks. A graduate of Cornell University, McPherson eschews the “one big hit” theory many executives believe can change a network’s fortunes. Rather, with shows ranging from Desperate Housewives to Steven Bochco’s midseason cop drama Blind Justice to the well-received nonscripted series Wife Swap, he hopes to shore up the network’s schedule, block by programming block.

A day after ABC’s upfront presentation, McPherson sat down with Mediaweek’s A.J. Frutkin to discuss the upcoming season.

Adweek Magazines: So, at ABC’s upfront presentation, Jimmy Kimmel referred to NBC as the rich kid in high school who gets the BMW, CBS as the straight-A student and Fox as the jock. About ABC, he said, “We’re the fat kids who eat paste.” Are you of the same mind?

McPherson: Not at all. I look at the network as having the personality and culture of the people who work there. And I think we have an amazing group of people. They’ve been through some really tough times. But the energy I felt going in was so positive, and they were excited about what the possibilities were. Not only were they encouraging, but they seemed willing to just roll up their sleeves. I think there’s a great kind of underdog spirit there now.

Adweek: Given the beating ABC has taken in the press, there must be some morale issues. How do you address those issues?

McPherson: I don’t know that you address them. Other than the fact that when I first got in there, I spent that first week meeting with all of my key reports and then as many other people as possible, just to hear what their perspectives are on things. How do they feel about their own jobs? How do they feel about the company? How do they feel about ABC’s chances?

Adweek: You changed the pilot-screening process at ABC to include as many employees as possible, from assistants to top executives. Why?

McPherson: That alone changed the morale overnight, in terms of what people felt like. It’s an amazing thing what we do in this business. You produce and schedule and support all of these television shows. And that’s what our entire business is about. And you go through this year-long process of getting these shows ready and bringing them forward…only to exclude all the people who are part of the process? It’s kind of an insane concept.

Adweek: So, is the network just a hit away from success?

McPherson: I don’t buy that. And it’s not the way I’ll go about working here. I think we’re going to look at this, for example, from the perspective of time periods. What can we do to improve a particular time period? Or a particular portion of our development? What are we doing to develop procedural dramas? I want people here to get some really targeted goals rather than look at the big picture and say, “God, are we going to be No. 1 in two months?” That’s just not a productive way to do it.

Adweek: You report to Anne Sweeney, who was named co-chair of Disney’s Media Networks unit and president of Disney-ABC Television. How well did you know her coming into the job?

McPherson: I didn’t know her very well at all. But the great thing is, is that this is a trial by fire for both us. We were both thrown into this thing. And given the pressure cooker you’re in, where you literally have the two of us in a room, interacting with every part of the network and company in this very tight period of time. It’s been great. It would have been nice to start in the middle of the summer and ease into the job. But we’ve had this crash course together in ABC. And that brings you close together.

Adweek: A lot of the press coverage regarding the network’s recent struggles has focused on Michael Eisner’s and Robert Iger’s perceived micro-management of ABC. How much autonomy can or will you have?

McPherson: I think Anne and I are going to have a ton. I don’t think it’s going to be an issue at all. It’s not even something I even really think about.

Adweek: At the upfront, you said ABC has to be the first stop for talent. But with something like The Apprentice, it was. How do you avoid letting go of important properties like that in the future?

McPherson: I think that’s about providing an environment where people believe they’re going to have a place where they can succeed. It’s about relationships, about how talent feels they’re going to be treated, and whether their writing vision is going to be allowed to be executed, how executives are going to deal with them and how passionate we’re going to get to fight for a show, schedule it and market it.

Adweek: The Apprentice isn’t the only project to have slipped through ABC and Disney’s hands. CSI initially was produced by Touchstone, which pulled out prior to its launch on CBS. At this stage, it would be generating a lot of cash for the studio. So, again, how do you help prevent losing these types of game-changing properties in the future?

McPherson: By the force of my personality. I believe you create a track record over time. I’m in this position because people believe in my development tastes and abilities. And I believe they’re going to stand behind that and support it.

Adweek: In terms of scheduling for the fall, awareness of Mark Cuban among sports fans seems to create strong flow between The Benefactor and Monday Night Football. But the Benefactor clips you showed at the upfront seemed, perhaps, a little too warm and fuzzy for the Monday Night Football crowd.

McPherson: It’s probably not the best sales piece for that show, because it doesn’t explain its inner workings. There are going to be some great twists and turns in the way it unfolds. He’s going to give away money live during the show. He’s going to go to houses in America, knock on their doors and, if they’re watching, give ’em cash. I also love the fact that he’s going to get in the mix. He’s not that über guy [a reference to Donald Trump]. He is really right in the mix. And he’s just a bizarre personality.

Adweek: But is it male-targeted enough to draw in the Monday Night Football crowd?

McPherson: It isn’t narrowly focused one way or the other. It’s going to have broad audience appeal. I think it’s just a really broad, fun, family show.

Adweek: Tuesday’s new lineup of four male-star comedies—including returning shows My Wife and Kids, George Lopez, According to Jim—plus NYPD Blue is more consciously targeted at males.

McPherson: Yes, definitely.

Adweek: Is that to counter the power of Fox’s American Idol in a way that last season’s lineup couldn’t?

McPherson: We didn’t really look at it from the perspective of “How do we counter Idol?” What we did was look at what were our signature comedies and then try to build a night around those. It was also a better way to protect our new comedy, Rodney, at 9:30 on Tuesdays. To have one new show on the night rather than two is great. Launching new shows in those hammock slots at 8:30 and 9:30 can make the night seem a little bit flimsy, because you’re hopeful on two pieces of programming that are brand new. So we just put all our comedies on a list and said, “OK, how do these pieces fit into the puzzle?”

Adweek: There still must be some concern about Idol.

McPherson: Oh, absolutely. We are very focused on January [when Idol’s fourth season launches].

Adweek: On Wednesdays, Wife Swap’s female appeal would seem to create strong flow out of The Bachelor. But Lost leading off the night seems a bit more challenging. After the upfront presentation, several advertisers said Lost looked more like a two-hour movie than a series.

McPherson: [Creator J.J. Abrams] has got a lot of plans for it. There’s an extensive, 35-page bible for it, which lays out what each show is. With each of those shows being very episodic. In one, [plane-crash survivors] go after water. In another, there’s an illness that’s hitting the people. So you really get a sense for what that experience is on an episodic basis.

Adweek: Is it close-ended?

McPherson: There are some serialized elements, but you can come in and watch episode four without having seen episodes one, two or three.

Adweek: Steven Bochco’s new drama Blind Justice will launch at midseason in the time slot now occupied by NYPD Blue. The show stars Ron Eldard as a cop who is blinded in the line of duty, and then stays on the force. The clips you showed looked strong. But how believable is the premise? Are blind cops really issued guns?

McPherson: Yes. Yes. I’ll tell you, when I first heard the concept, I was really kind of lukewarm. I felt like, “Well, that seems like a stretch. And what are the realities of that?” A couple of days after I got the job, I talked to Steven [Bochco] and he walked me through everything going on. I hadn’t seen any film at that point, but he said some fascinating things about the reality of what people in that situation go through. Then I saw the final cut, and I was just blown away.

Adweek: Of your nine new scripted series, five are from Touchstone. Another criticism of the network has been its reliance—or, perhaps, over-reliance—on its sister studio. Do you agree with that?

McPherson: No, I don’t. With the formation of NBC Universal, we have a landscape now where there are basically five companies [ABC/Touchstone, WB/Warner Bros., Fox/20th Century Fox, CBS(UPN)/Paramount, NBC/Universal]. And you can’t ignore the fact each of the other networks is going to be out there competing for material, and you certainly won’t get a shot at that first, if at all. So you have to have a strong studio as part of the makeup of a strong network. And we’re going to continue to mine the studio for all it’s worth.

Adweek: Last season, comedy development at the network was a lot stronger than drama development. Prior to Lloyd Braun and Susan Lyne departing ABC, both executives were promoting the notion of limited dramatic series as a way to revive interest in the format. Are you of the same mind?

McPherson: I think there’s a real place for events on television, but I don’t look at [limited series] as a kind of building block for the network.

Adweek: How has having been a content supplier informed your role now as a content buyer?

McPherson: I’m a guy who’s passionate about the projects I choose, and I think people recognize that in the [creative] community. I want the executives who work on the development side here to have that same kind of passion and that same kind of proactive nature. Even as a buyer, I almost want us to act like we’re selling things: We’re selling our network. We’re out there, going to the agents and saying, “What have you got?” Rather than, “Bring us your wares and we’ll make some choices.”

Adweek: What are the biggest differences, for you, between the two jobs?

McPherson: You’re dealing with a different set of relationships. You’re certainly dealing with being on the other side of certain relationships—and managing them from that perspective. But a lot of what I hope to bring to the job is to actually not change the nature of those relationships. And to still have that seller’s mentality of, “I’ve got to be pro-active. I’ve got to get out there. I’ve got to be somebody who’s in the creative community.” So it doesn’t feel like I’m this omnipresent, network guy in the tower on the corner. I think we really want to be as creative, and friendly, and as aggressive as we can be.

Adweek: You presented yourself at the upfront as someone who knows and loves television. What do you love about it?

McPherson: People always talk about hit movies. But a hit television show reaches more people every night than a hit movie does by a long shot. So to be able to wake up every day and say, “What are we going to do today that is going to create something or market something or show something that can reach so many people?” It’s just awesome.

Adweek: What television shows do you love?

McPherson: I really have a very broad pallette. For me, it always comes down to a point of view, that a show is coming at you from a point of view that you haven’t seen or that you feel needs to be on the air. And I think a lot of the shows that we picked up [for next season] have those points of view. Whether it’s as specific as Blind Justice or Desperate Housewives, I think they’re noisy shows, but not just for the sake of being noisy or edgy. I think that they’re shows that people can immediately understand and say, “OK, I know what they’re going through there.” These are situations that are acceptable to the people who are interested in the characters and the stories and the concepts that you’re selling.

Adweek: Throughout the upfront presentation, you emphasized both to the press and to advertisers that you had only been in your new job for 29 days before you had to announce the fall schedule. When an executive change happens this close to the upfront, the incoming executives are usually given some slack in terms of how responsible they are for the shows that they chose. But of the six scripted series launching in the fall, four are from Touchstone. These are shows you shepherded all the way through the development process. So how much slack really should you be accorded?

McPherson: Whatever honeymoon people want to give me, I’m fine to take it. But I also have got to get to work. I thought it was kind of odd that Kevin Reilly [NBC’s newly appointed programming president] did two or three minutes at the upfront. I did the upfront. So it’s more like, “I’m here. I’m working. It’s my job now.” So I’ll take all that on my shoulders. I have no issue with that.

Adweek: If one were to give you some slack, how would you define success for yourself in the coming season?

McPherson: Improving time periods, finding some new shows that we can fill the gaps with, and taking some returning series and making better shows of them. But whether it’s a returning series or a new show, you’ve got to protect it and build it and schedule it and support it accordingly. I think a good series can really be killed by mismanagement. So I think we’re just going to take each one of them one step at a time. And hopefully, we’ll come out of the year with some more assets than we have now.

Adweek: And that one big hit?

McPherson: If it walks in the door, we’ll take it.

A.J. Frutkin is a senior editor at Mediaweek who covers Hollywood.