It's tough out there, with the worst economy arguably in a century, lasting effects of the WGA strike and incomplete audience measurement. But the biggest worry President of ABC Entertainment Stephen McPherson has is that people in the TV business will stop taking the kinds of swings that result in hit TV.
The shows that have broken out for ABC and others in primetime are not the "seventeenth incarnation" of the same old procedural, he says, which tend to be considered the safer bets in times like these. "Shows that have worked for us were always when we took chances, whether with Dancing With the Stars or Lost," he told critics at the Television Critics Association press tour Friday morning, adding that those shows tend to have "rabid" followings. "We have to be incredibly diligent and bold in what we do; otherwise we get left by the wayside."
On ABC's development to-do list are more shows that viewers become passionate about. McPherson welcomes the chatter online about ABC shows and says fans' apparent "ownership" of characters and storylines is a sign of success.
He is also on the hunt for more comedy. Echoing Fox Entertainment President Kevin Reilly at press tour earlier in the week, McPherson says there is something to comedy that plays together in a block. He says he's "frustrated" by the ratings for Samantha Who?, which hasn't retained as much of its Dancing With the Stars lead-in as he would like. But he does have shows in the works that may be good companions, such as In the Motherhood. "I would like to get back to when we had Roseanne and Home Improvement," he says. "Comedy to be a half-hour alone is really hard and that's our challenge."
The status of existing comedy at the network remains largely to be determined. The ratings performance of former NBC comedy Scrubs, which recently made its debut on ABC, so far "has been great for us," McPherson says. But given that star Zach Braff is not expected to sign on beyond the current season, McPherson was not optimistic for another season of the show. "Another year, I don't know, it would be hard to do the show without Zach," he says.
Longtime comedy According to Jim is a question mark. "We should just leave that open," McPherson says. "Jim has been an amazing asset for us. It performed beyond everyone's expectation. It's probably the final run but you never say ‘Never.'"
He was hopeful about the evolution of Grey's Anatomy and spin-off Private Practice. The so-called "ghost" story on Grey's "is not a ghost," and McPherson calls the way the storyline plays out later this season "insightful." He's optimistic that the cross-over episodes planned for the two shows will provide new audiences for both shows and says Practice is sorting out which medical stories work for that show.
As far as drama development, expect McPherson to continue developing both the type of serialized fare that has worked so well for the network and procedurals, which are proving to work in primetime today. New entries Castle and The Unusuals would qualify as procedurals. "There's no question procedurals are working," he says. "But we don't want to do a total departure and suddenly do CBS shows. We can learn from their success, take what we've done well and make a better network."
Much like CBS Entertainment President Nina Tassler said earlier in the press tour, McPherson says he is "pleased" by NBC's move to strip a Jay Leno vehicle at 10 p.m. later this year. "We think it opens up beachfront real estate to less bidders," he says. "10 o'clock is such a coveted slot, we've had such success there, talent loves that slot, and it's an important lead-in to our affiliates."