The ABCs Of Change
By John M. Higgins and Allison Romano -- Broadcasting & Cable, 9/5/2004 8:00:00 PM
Steve McPherson inherited a network in April that has been in trouble for years. But since he took the reins, there has been buzz that the new chief of ABC Entertainment may have the shows to finally turn things around. High-concept dramas such as Desperate Housewives and Lost have gotten good early notices from critics and advertisers.
Still, he's running a network with a tradition of launching quality series it failed to nurture. Anybody remember Sports Night, The Job or Once and Again?
McPherson acknowledges that ABC lost focus in the past. Some of those shows were ones he developed as president of corporate sibling Touchstone Television. But he says this is a new era. He spoke with B&C's John M. Higgins and Allison Romano about how he's going to change the way ABC works.
How do you expect to succeed where others have failed?
I don't think about my predecessors. I have my own vision of how this place can succeed.
We have to be a more creative shop. It wasn't before. There were burned bridges and negative feelings. We need more consistency and forethought with our scheduling. We're an underdog, so we need to sell ourselves and our image. That's more of a studio mentality than a network mentality, and that's what I bring to the table.
What bridges were being burned?
There were a number of people who had experiences here that weren't favorable, so they're doing their stuff elsewhere. We want to have every advantage and be a first stop for people. We're not expecting to be the buyer in the sense of "bring us your wares and we will decide." That's a mistake. We have to rebuild this place and get the right people here.
The first job of most new network presidents is scrapping the previous slate. But you have well-received shows, some of which came out of your old shop, Touchstone.
It depends on what time of the cycle you come in. If you come in at Christmas, it's no different than May: A lot of the development is under way. We had some good potential assets. We'll take it one step at a time as we go into fall.
How is this your schedule as opposed to what ABC would have done?
There is more flow to the schedule than last year. Tuesday night last year was a family show, 8 Simple Rules, leading into a romantic comedy. Then According to Jim led into Less Than Perfect. This year, every one of those shows has a distinct point of view; they each fit into a distinct brand and night. I go with my gut.
What do you need for development in 2005?
Comedy-wise, we have two signature nights we need to grow. We finally have a TGIF that has TGIF shows, rather than just a brand. The Savages and 8 Simple Rules define that snight. On Tuesday, we're doing male-point-of-view family comedies with parenting, where kids are actually characters. We need more female-point-of-view shows, a Roseanne or Grace Under Fire.
On alternative [reality], we have the strongest brand out there. Wish-fulfillment/fantasy/romance we do well. Wife Swap is an extension of that, and we're looking to build on that momentum. We're never going to be doing Fear Factor, The Swan or a lot of the stuff Fox does. We're going to stick to what's worked and what will be a real foundation.
Dramas are the bigger question because there have been so many failures at ABC. We desperately want to get back into the procedural business. We haven't had a procedural hit since The Practice and NYPD Blue. This year, we picked up Eyes and Blind Justice. It's a business we have to pursue.
Do you envy cable networks' creative flexibility and looser standards?
I don't know if I envy it. But the fact we're measured together for the Emmys is obscene. It's a completely different set of rules, but you're judged in one category. Some cable shows use that freedom to do great work and bring a sense of realism we can't deliver. Others are just shocking. We don't have an interest in that.
The Sopranos is amazing. While there is violence and sex, it's still an incredible family story with amazing characters and relationships. I find The Shield to be more shocking and violent. I don't envy not being able to do a show where there are rapes of old women. Nor is it great television.
You're pitting Wife Swap on Wednesdays at 10 p.m. against CSI: New York and Law & Order. You have Lost at 8 p.m. Isn't that a little grisly for the family hour?
If we had a great 9 or 10 p.m. slot for Lost, it would be an easier decision. The other Big Three have a big hammer, at least one. We have to be a bit of a counterpuncher. If NYPD Blue was over, would Lost go there? Yes, it might.
As for Wife Swap, in past years, ABC took whatever they thought was their best shot and put it in that slot because it had The Bachelor lead-in. I don't think that's a wise move. With Extreme Makeover working there last year, reality works.
What's the dynamic working for Anne Sweeney, president of Disney-ABC TV?
She gives you freedom to run your business, challenges you on your decisions in a constructive way, making sure you're focused in the right way. And she challenges you to have the courage of your convictions. She brings a real sense of stability and confidence to this place.
What was your signature show at Touchstone?
It must kill you that it's at CBS.
Absolutely. I've got CSI killing me. Scrubs killing me. Amazing Race killing me. Now Kevin Hill [at UPN] looks like it's going to kill me. I'll be happy when I have hits at ABC I'm responsible for.
What's your best shot at a breakout on your new schedule?
None of the shows we picked up were broken. I've been on both sides. We have no significant recasting in anything, no significant reshooting. We're hoping to have some good nights and some building blocks when we get to May.
You've accused Fox of stealing Wife Swap. Did you like its Trading Spouses as a show?
No. I think it's mean-spirited—like all their stuff.
How is Wife Swap different?
Wife Swap is an incredibly emotional show. People go through amazing transformations. It shows people what they have, what they don't, what they're missing. And it's entertaining.
What's the most valuable thing you learned at the studio that you bring to the network?
Being aggressive and passionate about what you believe in from a creative standpoint. Fighting for the creative, whether they're actors, writers, producers, directors.
ABC wasn't aggressive?
I don't think so. They let a lot of deals go. They were reactive in terms of scheduling. They assumed they'd be able to choose the best stuff as it came in. You don't get the best stuff unless you go out there and make yourself available, whether that's going to a producer's office or an agent's office and selling this place. That wasn't the culture.
Is there a show on elsewhere you wish you had?
CSI: New York.
What's on your TiVo?
My favorite show is Iron Chef. I appreciate The Sopranos. I like A&E's City Confidential, too.
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