Originally created 02/22/06

ABC exec helps 'Desperate' network find its footing



LOS ANGELES - When ABC Entertainment President Stephen McPherson recalls his first job out of college, as a broker on Wall Street, it's not happily.

"The idea you would go a whole year and at the end they would say, 'You made X and lost Y, and that's what you did and thank you very much,' it's mind-boggling to me that I did that for five years and people do that for a career."

For McPherson, the bottom line now is shaped by "Desperate Housewives," "Lost" and other hit series that have revived ABC's fortunes and made him television's latest golden boy in the executive ranks.

"I think we've done a good job of zigging when others were zagging" is how McPherson, 41, puts it. With other network lineups dominated by crime procedurals, ABC fielded its dark suburban satire and the plane-crash drama that risked being eerie and tragic.

When McPherson moved from head of Walt Disney Co.'s TV-production arm, Touchstone Television, to the network in spring 2004, he became its fifth programming chief in eight years. The last ABC hits were "Who Wants to Be a Millionaire" in 1999, before it bled to death from overexposure, and "The Bachelor" in 2002.

During McPherson's tenure, the network's viewership has increased by close to a third among all viewers as well as the young-adult audience sought by advertisers, moving ABC from fourth to second place in total viewers and from fourth to first in adults age 18 to 49 for the season to date.

Asked to describe McPherson's contributions to ABC, Disney-ABC Television Group President Anne Sweeney takes a broad perspective.

"What hasn't he done for prime time is more the question," Sweeney said. "I think he has brought a strong new creative spirit and the wonderful ability to take chances back to network prime-time television."

Lloyd Braun and Susan Lyne were the executives in charge when "Desperate Housewives" and "Lost" got the go-ahead. But it fell to McPherson to fashion the schedule and market it.

"His genius has been promotion and scheduling," said Bill Carroll, analyst for Katz Television. "Some of the pieces were in place, but if you don't exploit those pieces and don't schedule them correctly, you could have the best show on television and no one knows and no one sees."

McPherson was bold from the start, said Sweeney, recounting what she calls her "favorite Steve story." It stems from his decision to bump "Alias," then one of the network's few reliable performers, from its time slot in favor of an untested newcomer.

"There was conversation and discussion at the table, a lot of it heated," Sweeney recalled. "But he held his ground. He had a strong belief that Sunday night at 9 belong to 'Desperate Housewives.'"

Marc Cherry, the series' creator, credits McPherson with more than assembling a solid prime-time grid. It was McPherson, then at Touchstone, who brought Cherry's script to ABC's attention after it was rejected by five other networks. Cherry's then-flagging career was revived.

"A lot of people had written me off. He was the first person in a position of power to say, 'I love this show.' He was supportive before it was a hit," Cherry said.

When McPherson is asked about role models it's telling that he doesn't name one of the legendary network chiefs, such as the late Brandon Tartikoff. Instead, he voices admiration for writer-producer Larry Gelbart.

"My favorite show of all time is 'M-A-S-H'," said McPherson, who grew up seeing Gelbart's name attached to the acclaimed series and later had the chance to work with him on a pilot. "I think he is definitely someone who had a vision."

The way the network operates under McPherson reflects his attitude toward those who make the series, Cherry said.

"I think he sets a tone of respect for showrunners and creative people in general. The people he brought with him from Touchstone do the same."

McPherson's early TV watching came in Europe. His father was headmaster at the American School of Paris and McPherson lived abroad for more than six years, returning to the United States after graduating high school.

Among the shows he enjoyed: "Some old (Aaron) Spelling stuff, 'Love Boat,' 'Fantasy Island'." And "Rockford Files."

Good storytelling with "a fun to it" is his preference. "I'm not drawn as much to a completely dark take on the world, although I can admire those visions. I do respond to the mix. That's kind of life."

Respect for artists doesn't make him a softy. The Cornell University graduate said he tries to be honest in voicing his opinions and concedes he might come off "looser and rougher than some."

In a competitive industry that often favors bluntness over finesse, that's not remarkable. McPherson cites an example who was close at hand, former Disney CEO Michael Eisner.

"I always admired Eisner's ability to always just say what he was thinking, and whether you liked Michael or didn't like Michael, he was his own man and he was doing this thing the way he wanted to do it," McPherson said. "I've tried to do whatever it was, Wall Street or this job, as my own person."

He can't get complacent, even with new hits including "Grey's Anatomy." ABC, as with other networks, has had trouble launching sitcoms (McPherson is hoping the midseason comedy "Sons & Daughters" flies) and must navigate the loss of "Monday Night Football."

Whether McPherson has what it takes to be a great network head - a combination of business sense and showmanship - remains to be seen, according to analyst Carroll.

"The only way you find out is the legacy. And a legacy is not a year or two; a legacy is 10 years," Carroll said.