If every trader on Wall Street could give up his day job, move out to Hollywood, and know that, in less than 10 years, he or she would be running a studio, more of them would probably do it.
When Stephen McPherson, president of Touchstone Television, packed up and left New York for Los Angeles in 1991, he completed his trip to studio head in short order.
After graduating from Cornell University, McPherson went to Wall Street to work as a foreign-exchange trader. There, he got up every day at 5 a.m. to work from 6:30 a.m. to 5 p.m. and then attended NYU's Tisch School of Film at night.
"I was doing neither one of those things very well," he says. "It made me realize that I needed to get out of Wall Street. So I took a leave of absence and came out to L.A. looking for a job."
He never went back, even though he arrived in Hollywood with no work lined up and no real connections. After eight months tending bar, he started as a production assistant at the now disbanded Witt-Thomas-Harris Productions.
After a year and a half there, he became director of current programming at Fox, where he worked on such shows as Martin, The Ben Stiller Show, Class of '96 and Down the Shore. He spent only a year there before going over to ABC Productions. At that time, Disney purchased ABC and reshuffled its departments. McPherson left and went to NBC, where he developed Just Shoot Me, News Radio
and The Pretender. He stayed at NBC for three years before being wooed back to Disney, as executive vice president of Buena Vista Productions.
In 1999, the studio and the network merged, and Touchstone Television was born. McPherson was named president in July 2000.
Running a studio requires a diverse set of skills. Studio presidents must be able to manage writers, directors, producers and actors. They must be able to be diplomatic with network executives while asserting their opinions. And they must be creative enough to have vision and a point of view.
That said, "75% of this job is about relationships," McPherson says. "Creatively, you absolutely have to have the chops. You have to understand the material, the story and be able to identify talent. But if you don't have the ability to translate that into effective management of those elements, then it all goes for naught."
"I think he's demonstrated since he got that job his ability to walk the line with a vertically integrated studio and still have success selling outside," says Peter Aronson, president of Regency Television, with whom McPherson worked at Witt-Thomas. "He has an amazing ability to balance the corporate mandate of servicing ABC, with the studio and creative mandate of selling to every network."
Those who work with him say he's straightforward while remaining passionate about his projects.
"It's never his way or the highway," says Marc Gurvitz, president of Brillstein-Grey's management company and one of According to Jim's executive producers. "Ultimately, it's about what is best for the show, not about his opinion."
Says Karey Burke, executive vice president of development at NBC, "He doesn't always say what he thinks the networks want to hear."
While at Touchstone, McPherson has developed many shows for ABC. Among them: 8 Simple Rules for Dating My Teenage Daughter, According to Jim
and Alias. But he has also developed hits for other networks: CSI
for CBS, which Touchstone doesn't produce, and Scrubs
And says Jay Sures, partner and co-head of United Talent Agency's television department, "He's certainly one of the next candidates who will be given a chance to run a network. At the right time or right place, someone will say this guy has the skill set to pick, choose and develop a schedule."