Steve McPherson Gets the Last Laugh

ABC chief talks about his breakout fall, restoring the network's comedy brand, and NBC's "huge mistake" with Jay Leno
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After ABC, like all of the broadcast networks, struggled for years to establish enduring comedy series, ABC Entertainment Group President Stephen McPherson launched a trio of comedies this season that have jump-started the network's Wednesday-night schedule. In an era when staying on the air is the new success, ABC managed to debut a total of five series this fall that have already shown promise as long-term properties: comedies The Middle, Modern Family and Cougar Town, and dramas V and FlashForward.

In McPherson's first in-depth interview about a season that has vindicated his aggressive development strategy and the Wednesday-night gamble, the executive reveals the hardest thing about his job, why he actually wants NBC to get well soon, and how he plans to battle the cable networks this summer. An edited transcript follows.

You took big swings this season, and it paid off. You have this comedy block working that you built from scratch, including Modern Family, which critics love and people are actually watching. How does it feel for you?

The fall creatively for us was wonderful. It's really rewarding to be able to put on shows that were universally appealing and that people really embraced.

The comedy thing for us has been really a struggle because we've had some wonderful success in dramas [and] some amazing success in reality. For my time here, comedy had been something that we'd taken some shots at, we had some mild success in, but we really had not been able to establish a night or a foothold or a brand or a point of view. So Wednesday was a big gamble.

We were really fortunate to have the goods in three of those shows, The Middle, Modern Family and Cougar Town-all very different shows, but on the other hand all kind of dysfunctional-family shows.

So that was a huge win for us to start off the season, and we really felt good about it because the material was there. And often you're trying to build full nights. It's hard to come up with one show that's working, let alone two or three. We love Kelsey [Grammer], but that show [Hank] just didn't really materialize the way anybody really would have wanted. But the other three have performed...I hear more about those shows than I think I've heard about shows since Desperate and Lost went on the air.

It's got to feel vindicating.

Oh, absolutely. And I'm so happy for the team. We looked at the comedy team just trying to get through a couple of really tough years, and then to have the success; really there's nothing in this business more energizing and rewarding than seeing something [go] from a kind of small idea into a show that's actually working, and enjoying it with the people out there who are fans. It really is what keeps you getting up each day because the scheduling, the marketing, Nielsen ratings, political climates, all that stuff-that'll drive you insane.

How much of a credit to your Wednesday comedies is the fact that Fox moved up Idol against them this month?

It's kind of odd. Because Modern Family is the same company. [20th Century Fox produces Modern Family and, like Fox, is part of News Corp.] So much for vertical integration. I've often said that I think the broadcast networks spend far too much time beating up on each other. I was actually happy to see Glee move to a different night from Modern Family, because I appreciate those shows. But the Idol thing is the Idol thing, so we have to stay consistent.

And that is the plan, right? Keep those comedies in their slots and even repeat through the summer.

Comedy grows over time. Viewing patterns grow over time. A consistent night [is key], where people know what they're getting whether they're originals or repeats; there's not a lot of churn and not moving things in and out competitively. Hats off to CBS for doing that with Monday night; you can see what that's built over time. But it took time. And patience. So that's what we want to do.

Do you see yourself launching another night of comedy next fall?

No. I think we really need to focus on this one, and if we're lucky enough to have that much strength in our development, we'll figure out a way for it to bolster Wednesday.

How are you feeling about FlashForward and V?

They didn't feel like big gambles because we are established in the drama world. But they were high-concept, we had a lot riding on them. I think the challenge with those shows is, where do we go over time with them? And I think we were really happy to see V kind of build in its run. FlashForward, we were a little concerned when we saw the numbers kind of tick off. We'll continue to be challenged to build those shows as well as Wednesday night.

What is the toughest thing about your job right now?

I think disappointment. And that comes at all different times during the year. You have to be passionate to do these jobs, so you're getting passionate in a business where an 80% failure rate is a home-run success. Basically, 85% of TV fails. So think about that. People talk about baseball hitters who hit .300, which would be so far beyond any network success rate that's ever happened. So that's tough.

We all are making our best collaborative efforts to bring pilots together. And some of them just don't. You know, you have this beautiful pilot script that you all fell in love with and then it gets cast wrong. Or it gets shot wrong. Or there's some other alchemy that doesn't take place.

Fox's Kevin Reilly told me the other day that the oft-filed story of the demise of broadcast TV is being proved premature. What's your take?

I think he's definitely right about that. The broadcast networks are doing some of the best work out there. There's no question.

It's funny because cable wants their cake and to eat it, too. They want to compete with us and say, "We're broadcast, aren't we?" Then they want to say, "Broadcast is dead." And it's like, which is it? Do you want to be us or is it dead?

If you look at the success of the quality shows this fall and all the discussions and now the movements on retrans, the broadcast networks are an unbelievably valuable asset. They're completely undervalued at this point, if anything. I think that as long as we keep doing great creative, we're going to be a huge, huge platform for advertisers and for ourselves in terms of creating content that can then be utilized and exploited over every platform domestically and internationally.

What needs to happen among the broadcast community for the networks to continue this momentum of proving its value?

It's hard, because I don't think anybody's ever going to be happy with a system where a network lays down on a certain night and says, "You've got that night, we've got this night." But I do think now we're competing against a plethora of platforms and media types, and the way people consume and the way they personalize.

So I think there just doesn't need to be as much focus on ABC trying to beat NBC, NBC trying to beat Fox, Fox trying to beat CBS, and vice versa. I just don't think that is as important as, are you succeeding with the material, first and foremost? Is it creative, is it compelling, is it getting eyeballs in?

Some said the Leno move was proof that it's just too hard to put 22 hours on the air. Now that we've seen it, we've seen what else has happened this season, care to call some bullshit on that?

Yeah, I think everybody calls bullshit on that. That's just the most ridiculous explanation or justification for just a huge mistake.

Now that Leno's been on the air for half a season, what has been the impact on your business and on the broadcast business overall?

We look at it as a competitive advantage that we're able to program original scripted programming in those hours. I hesitate to say we're happy to see the struggle there because we all want a vibrant broadcast network landscape. We don't really want to see that. It's like if we're the New York Yankees, is it good news that the Boston Red Sox decide to stop playing baseball? No. Competitively you want to beat them, but you want to beat 'em at their best. I really think that is the genuine feeling out there, in the advertising community, in the network community, that we want all the networks to be healthy.

What's your take on Leno's impact on the creative world?

What the impression is and what the final result will be depends on how much development NBC does. But the impression going [into the season] was there's five hours of television that are no longer going to be programmed from the scripted standpoint. So there's going to be a lot fewer pilots shot, there's going to be a lot fewer pickups made and there's going to be a lot less opportunity. To some extent, there was that feeling going into the development season.

That said, I don't think Fox changed their development plans or CBS changed their development plans because of that. We didn't, certainly, and we're developing the same as we always have. So our scrutiny is going to be the same as it's always been in terms of what we're looking for on this network. When we get into scheduling, will we look at whether this is going to be up against Leno as opposed to ER? Sure, we'll look at that. But that I don't think translates down to the writer who is coming in to pitch a show.

Certainly going into the season, people feeling that five hours were gone was a big thing, now there's just rumors about whether or not they're going to take some nights off, or all of it off. I don't know.

Can you follow up a year like this one with another in which you take big chances? Or do you need to let it play out for a while?

I don't know that we would say, "Next year we need to be conservative." I think we need to react to what's working on the schedule. We're going to go into next fall with a Wednesday comedy lineup that's going to need some reseeding, that's going to be very different from where we came in this past fall. But we're always going to take chances. That's just kind of who we are. And we think we'll succeed over time by doing that-that enough of those will break out and be the Losts of the world.

Does it ever get annoying that CBS gets all the credit for being No. 1 with its crime drama formula while you're taking these big swings?

I don't really begrudge CBS for it. I think Nina [Tassler] and Nancy [Tellem] and Les [Moonves] have done a really good job of building that brand. I don't think it's our brand, and it's not who I am as a leader and, hopefully, a creative force. It's not where I feel like we need to go as a network. I certainly get envious of the stability of it, but I'd much prefer to take some of the big swings at the plate we've taken and succeed sometimes-and we're going to fail sometimes.

Any plans to try to take back the summer from cable?

I think we need to do more scripted than we are. We'll have probably a couple of scripted originals for sure in the hour form. And we'll have a few more reality shows. I think we established a good Monday kind of romantic night and Wednesday kind of action night, so we'll stick with some of those.

And we need to use the May sweeps and really not have it be like the end of the season and then the summer. We need to take it right on through so there are some opportunities to do that. Maybe with V, maybe with FlashForward. We'll have to see how those come back.

There are still going to be doldrums in the summer. Programming's expensive and to have that many hours of programming is tough, especially when you get into that middle summer. I think early summer, because you have the sweeps, and then late summer when you're leading up to the season, it's a little bit easier. We've had a bit more of a struggle in that middle doldrums when there's just not a lot going on and not much to promote.

Let's talk about development a little bit. You picked up a couple of comedies and a cop drama pilot set in Detroit. What are your priorities, what are you looking for?

In the drama world, we're always looking for our version of procedurals, the Grey's Anatomys of the world, Private Practice, Boston Legal, those kind of character-driven procedurals. That cop show, for example, is a character-driven procedural.

We also think that in the comedy world, we've got to have as much ammunition as we can for Wednesday night. So we'll look at those three shows and look at compatible pairings-voices that we get excited about, talent we get excited about that can fit into that lineup. That's going to be a big driving force on that front.

We're always going to look for the out of-the-box, the Vs of the world, whether it's bringing back that or FlashForward, which was just out of the blue, a new take on something. We're always going to feel like we've succeeded by taking chances. We've never really succeeded when we had to retreat or we try to do something that's indicating something else; it just falls flat on its face. We're not able to do that sort of material and succeed.

Those are kind of the broad plans going in. But to be honest, it comes down to, Where's the great writing? What collectively does the team respond to? And how does it fit into our overall pickup list? Do we have five cop shows? Do we have 10 dramas set in X?

Do you feel a pressure or need to directly replace certain big franchises? In other words, does FlashForward have to carry the particular brand of torch that is Lost?

No, because I think a network is a very fluid beast. I don't think you're looking to refill pieces. Look, Monday Night Football goes away, [and] you're not looking to have some program that carries three hours of programming only in the fall. We had to look at that night in a completely different way. Lost is a show that is iconic and is so different from anything that's been on, and so different than anything that will be on that it would be a mistake to try to go and do another Lost quote-unquote.

So we're just looking for those next big opportunities. And comedy now becomes a bigger target for us, whereas before we were trying to get our foot in the door. Now it's about building it.

We have to see where V and FlashForward are at the end of this year. Did they become a combo? Are we doing a night that's become more of that male-oriented stuff? We'll have to react accordingly, but I don't think we'll be conservative just because we were a little more aggressive in the fall. I think we're always going to be pretty aggressive, though I think people always get on me, you're doing too much development, you're taking too many chances. But it's worked well so far.

How would you rate your 2009-10 season so far?

I saw recently where someone asked Obama what his grade was-and he gave a grade, I think he said a solid B+ or something like that. And I was like: "Incomplete." And I think that's kind of what I would grade us, "Incomplete." Not in the terms of missing something, but it takes time now, it's a full season, we know that the spring is very different from the fall and the summer now is a factor. And where do things build over time? There are some shows that you take the first year and think, "My God, these are going to be gigantic hits." And then they kind of petered out, and vice versa, some things have grown.

We feel really good about what we've been able to do. We know we're facing Idol coming on. The Olympics will be a little bit of a blip. So we're just gonna have to keep the creative up and really keep as consistent as we can.

I understand the season is only half over, but when you look at how it opened and what promise has been shown, is it fair to say it's better than expected?

Yeah, probably. That's fair enough. I've always been somebody who has believed: Put it out there in a way that your gut tells you to, because if you fail doing that, you're going to feel a lot better than if you are scared or you go in with some sort of trepidation.

We were really excited by, I guess, how much buzz the fall got, not just because of the creative but because people started saying, Boy, you know, it's a night of comedy. How are you possibly going to do that? I think whenever somebody says you can't do something, you get more motivated to do it. And we really knew what we had in those shows because we had seen a lot of storylines and knew the talent and knew the producers. So for us it was definitely a fall that we were tremendously proud of, and certainly above and beyond expectations.

E-mail comments tomelissa.grego@reedbusiness.com, and follow her on Twitter:@melissagrego

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