Steve McPherson is a network samurai—an aggressive, competitive, passionate executive. And he now joins a tiny fraternity, led by Leslie Moonves, CBS chairman and CEO, and Jeff Zucker, NBC Entertainment, News and Cable President. Both define successful network chiefs. Can the new prez of ABC prime time entertainment mirror their achievements? Transforming the fourth-place network will take more than brains and bravado. He'll need authority and autonomy.
What are the odds Michael Eisner and Bob Iger will let him do his job?
Sources say he got assurances from the two Disney powerhouses before accepting the post last week. And McPherson's new boss, Disney Media Networks' Co-Chair Anne Sweeney, swears she has always "endorsed clean, streamlined decision-making.
"I will work with Steve the same way I have worked with [Disney Channel's] Rich Ross, [SoapNet's] Deborah Blackwell, and all of my direct reports within our cable division," she says.
"My role as manager is to work with my team to identify goals, make sure we have proper resources, and make sure they are comfortable knowing I love problems and mistakes maybe even more than I love success."
In that case, she's on target.
ABC is No. 4, down 10% (excluding last year's Super Bowl) year-to-year in the key adult 18-49 demographic. The network also is expected to owe $132 million in advertising make-goods at year's end, according to CIBC World Markets, preventing it from achieving its goal of profitability by 2005.
Insiders say he was in contention for the top job at Universal Network Television and cleverly used it as leverage to seal the ABC deal. "Steve is the guy," says Jay Sures, co-head of television at United Talent Agency, who predicted to B&C last June that McPherson would be tapped to head a network.
"He's smart, and he has a point of view. He has the leadership qualities that will get them out of this hole," he says.
McPherson's most immediate challenge is presenting ABC's fall schedule to advertisers in less than a month. One advantage he has is that, as the former president of Disney-owned TV studio Touchstone Television, he's familiar with many of the network's potential shows. Agents, producers, and former co-workers say his biggest attribute is a single-minded focus: creating great TV.
That savvy is evident in the programs he developed. Yet his biggest successes have landed at other
networks. After ABC axed CSI
because of its price tag, McPherson hawked his project to CBS.
He convinced Moonves that CSI
was a franchise show. He was right. Not only is CSI
the most-watched drama on television, a second spinoff, CSI: New York, launches this fall.
Similarly, the off-beat comedy Scrubs
became a staple on NBC and could make millions in syndication. And Emmy-winning Monk
was a surprise hit for USA Network.
At ABC, McPherson shepherded some of the network's more solid performers: Alias, According to Jim, and 8 Simple Rules. None are big hits; all pull their weight.
But now that McPherson is running ABC, he should ensure that his best projects, his next CSI, stays at ABC.
He'll need the win.
Failure to achieve financial stability and ratings resulted in the firing of ABC Entertainment Television Group Chairman Lloyd Braun and ABC Entertainment President Susan Lyne. ABC Television Network President Alex Wallau was demoted to president of ABC Network Operations and Administration. Mark Pedowitz, ABC's top deal-maker, keeps that job and adds oversight of Touchstone TV. Pedowitz will hire a creative executive at the studio to handle day-to-day development duties, Sweeney says.
Sweeney doesn't plan to micromanage, leaving the programming decisions to McPherson and Pedowitz. Both declined comment.
Warren Littlefield, former NBC entertainment president, who was once McPherson's boss, approves of ABC's choice. "People like Steve because he's a cowboy; he's not a typical suit. He relishes going against the odds."
Observers say that, if ABC is going to reverse its fortunes, it needs that kind of buck-stops-here maverick at the top.
"You can take more risks when you have some success," says one broadcast executive. "The problem with ABC is that they should be taking more risks but, because they are failing, they are holding back."
Some industry observers suspect that ABC's latest restructuring is nothing more than a game of internal musical chairs at Disney. And they aren't sure it will be enough.
"They need to blow the place up," says one former network president. "They are just rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic."
Additional reporting by Allison Romano and John M. Higgins