On Steve McPherson - Broadcasting & Cable

On Steve McPherson

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I’m really pissed off at Steve McPherson. I was so dearly looking forward to writing this week about the socially important and inspirational television experience that is Jersey Shore.

But then the outgoing ABC chief’s sudden exit smacked me in the face like I mouthed off to J-Woww. So, much like the scripts she and her castmates follow, I had to react to The Situation.

While the MTV guido-palooza is very much en vogue right now, my thoughts on McPherson probably won’t be. That’s because I thought the guy had a pretty damned good run at ABC, and I for one will miss covering him in that role.

Let’s take the second part first: why I’m sorry to see him go. It’s pretty simple; we all know the guy is, um, passionate. But what I like about him—as a journalist—is that he actually has the guts to show it.

I have long bemoaned in this space how television executives have gotten tragically boring and conflict-averse in public. McPherson was a throwback in that regard. His most celebrated example, of course, was when he said Ben Silverman should “be a man” regarding his pal Kevin Reilly’s ouster at NBC. In front of a gaggle of reporters. On the record.

For a journalist, he was refreshing that way. We’ve had our differences, and he still likes to trash me every chance he gets for a particular cover I ran as an editor that he detested. But he does it to my face. When he had a bone to pick, he would call or email, not rip me behind my back as others often do.

Yes, he did not suffer fools well, especially in the press. And yes, he probably thought the media (or the town) was out to get him much more than it is (and that was before last week’s rumors and allegations, still swirling at presstime).

But he wasn't totally wrong. Once NBC and Silverman parted company, McPherson assumed the role of the exec people most loved to trash with tales of his temperament. Of course, none of them had the guts to do it on the record, as evidenced by the anonymous quotes ripping him in the media coverage of his departure from Disney. It’s fine if you want to call McPherson an asshole, just have the guts to put your name next to it.

As for his run at ABC, outside of CBS’s steady diet of hits, it is really hard to say that any other network was much better on the scripted side during his entire reign. You can get into the minutiae of who was actually responsible for the hits early in his tenure and whatever else, but it’s hard to say he was much worse than anyone else as the networks collectively struggle to make massive hits.

Yes, ABC’s development looks pretty bad this year. Suffering through drama pilot My Generation actually made me want to sue ABC to get 45 minutes of my life back, as the only thing that would have made it more derivative is if there was a three-judge panel on the side commenting on the terrible show. But as our recent critics’ roundtable showed, it doesn’t look like any of the networks exactly killed it this year.

That said, it’s not a rip-roaring shock that McPherson is out, as his departure was considered by many to be an inevitability at some point. His rocky relationship with his boss, Anne Sweeney, was not a huge secret, and the sell-by date on all network presidents comes around at some point. Still, the timing of his departure obviously caught a lot of people—including many of the ABC affiliates—off guard.

Whatever people say about Steve McPherson, to his face or behind the spineless veil of blind quotes, he is talented and no one doubts his passion. His inability or unwillingness to fi lter the latter undoubtedly did him in. But statements about his wine business aside, he won’t be squeezing grapes for the rest of his life; he’ll resurface soon.

It’s just too bad it won’t be as a broadcast network chief. Because it was a fun, often acerbic, old-school—and ultimately successful— ride for a journalist to cover.

Editors note: updated at 11:30 am PT to reflect change in characterization of Ben Silverman's departure from NBC.

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