Hollywood is traditionally quick to pull up stakes at the first sign of trouble for a network entertainment president. When Steve McPherson took over the entertainment division of ABC in April 2004, he was hounded by the rumors that usually precede a fall from grace. They came even though, under his watch, ABC quickly ascended from the ratings basement, where it had dwelled for years, to the penthouse, thanks to Desperate Housewives, Lost and Grey's Anatomy.
The gossip reached a crescendo last season, when the former Touchstone Television president failed to gain traction for his first full slate of shows as entertainment head.
Stories painting him as an irascible man with incredibly good luck appeared, notably in New York Times television writer Bill Carter's recent book, Desperate Networks.
McPherson silenced those critics this fall when he made the network a primetime force on Thursdays, while keeping its strong Sunday-night schedule humming despite a challenge from football on NBC. And he led ABC to victory among the key adults 18-49 demo in the first nine out of 10 weeks of the season, including the November sweeps—ABC's longest winning streak in seven years—without the benefit of Monday Night Football.
The arrival of Grey's and rookie Ugly Betty on Thursdays turned the lucrative night into a two-way race between ABC and CBS, an unimaginable scenario only a year ago. And McPherson has kept Sunday nights strong with a creatively revitalized Housewives and freshman Brothers & Sisters.
Those wins have affirmed his formidable reputation as a savvy development executive, scheduler and marketer.
In his first in-depth interview of the fall, McPherson discusses with B&C'sJim Benson strategies for scheduling Dancing With the Stars next spring, the fate of Lost, bringing viewers back to serialized dramas, the firestorm over The Path to 9/11, and why stories of his volcanic temper are overblown.
Before the season even began, ABC took heat for The Path to 9/11. Why did the program alter facts from the 9/11 Commission report? You had to know that would raise hackles.
Here's the thing: The Path to 9/11 was a dramatization, not a documentary, and as with any dramatization, it was drawn from a variety of sources, including the 9/11 Commission report, a number of other published materials and personal interviews. So, the idea that it “strayed or varied from a single source” just isn't valid. We stand by the material and the research.
We weren't surprised that the film caused debate. We should be discussing and debating the events, so we can find a way to never let anything like that happen again. If the film helped make a few more people aware of the debate and become participants in it, I think it did its job.
The biggest story of the season is ABC's turnaround on Thursday nights, thanks to the move of Grey's. Is it surpassing your expectations?
It has exceeded my expectations. I was never nervous because I knew that it would perform; it was just at what level. The pieces in the puzzle fell together, like Ugly Betty and Brothers & Sisters. It's really a two-pronged thing: You can't have Thursday without Sunday.
Was it a tough decision?
I was talking with my buddy [NBC Entertainment President] Kevin Reilly. We kind of offer each other perspective on things, and we both have often said you can have a gut instinct about something, stick with it, and, when it works, it's one of the most rewarding things that can happen. It's like when Desperate Housewives took off. This was an even more magnified version of that and very public, and there were some people who thought it was a terrible idea and some people who thought it was a good idea. But there were very few people standing behind me saying, “No matter what happens, we're with ya!”
What were those initial days like around the fall debuts?
It was interesting because Thursday premiered before Sunday and everyone on Friday was congratulating me [for Grey's big debut numbers]. I was saying, “Let's wait until Monday.”
Your decision to move Ugly Betty from the lead-off position on Fridays to Thursdays has paid big dividends, but did you worry about what would happen to a stranded Men In Trees at 9 p.m. Fridays?
Friday is a tough notch, and we told the producers, “We really love this show. We don't have a high-profile spot for it right now. We look at this show as a farm team for us, as a possible Sunday or Thursday show. When that possibility opens up, just do great work, and we will be behind you.” And we were, and they did great work.
With Sunday nights more vulnerable, the pressure had to be intense to fix Housewives this season.
Yeah. To [creator/Executive Producer] Marc Cherry's credit, he never took the scrutiny in anything but a productive manner. He was very honest about some of the missteps that he had made.
He is his own biggest critic and realized that there really needed to be a change. He wanted to take control of 100% of it, but he put his ego aside and hired huge writers like Joe Keenan [Frasier] and Jeff Greenstein [Will & Grace], both of whom could run shows on their own. He got out ahead of it and got much more advanced writing going than they ever had in the first two seasons.
Creatively, I don't think that show has done better work than it's doing right now. They certainly heard from me a lot, but you don't have to listen to me if you can step up and execute, and they did.
Didn't you once say that you get nervous when showrunners listen to you?
[Rescue Me producer] Peter Tolan and I have laughed about that, because later, I think, he was like, “F--- Steve McPherson for saying that.” But in the experience that I've had, the best showrunners listen but interpret what you want to get executed and put it in their own words. I get nervous when someone is taking down my dialogue and my story fix, because we're there to collaborate and guide them, not to write the script.
Is DWTS definitely returning later this season?
I think we'll put another cycle on in March. We have to get the right casting. BBC America has done a brilliant job in casting thus far, and that's really important. The good and bad about these shows that are in installments is that they come, they're explosive, go away and come back to the next installment. We want to make sure we're not putting it back on in January. If it comes back in March, it will have actually been off longer than when it was off from spring to fall.
The Apprentice faltered when NBC ran it multiple times per season.
I think Dancing is different from shows like The Apprentice. We're not running three installments a year and doing as many shows as they did. We're not going to up the number of hours, the number of people or try to stretch this thinner.
Will you put Dancing up against American Idol?
There are definitely scenarios where people wouldn't have to choose. Dancing was on last year against Idol a couple times on Thursday, and both shows did well. Idol runs so many nights and hours, it's hard to avoid entirely, so we'll just have to see how it works.
ABC has sunk lots of money into Lost and reaped the benefits. Would you agree to end it if the producers think it has run its course but it is still doing well?
This is a show with a beginning, middle and end. It will run its natural course.
Does its ratings decline this season concern you?
We would have liked to have it come back as explosive as the second season. But part of that was the buzz that got going over the summer about [last season's] finale. There were a lot of elements that led up to that. There are unbelievably strong parts and a lot of good material in the back 17 [episodes returning from hiatus in February].
Is there any chance that a serialized show like Six Degrees can redeem itself, or are you just going to burn off the episodes when it comes back?
No, we would cancel it if we were just going to burn it off. There's a ton of good casting buzz on that show. Admittedly, both the producers and network would say we didn't creatively deliver on the promise of the pilot. I think, when we get to [the final two produced] episodes and you see what that show can be, we're really hoping we will deliver if [there is a ratings bump and] we shoot more.
Are you moving toward more resolution on each episode?
We wanted episodes that dramatically could be stand-alones but would allow you to really get deeper into one particular relationship or dynamic. Those are the stronger episodes, and that is the template moving forward.
Bill Carter's book Desperate Networks paints former ABC head Lloyd Braun as the champion of Lost and you as its biggest critic. What's the real story?
We developed that show [when I ran Touchstone]. Jack would have died in the pilot if it hadn't been for me. [Executive Producers] J.J. [Abrams] and Damon [Lindelof] are unbelievably talented, and we have a wonderful working relationship. In these jobs, people get an enormous amount of credit and blame they don't deserve.
There are thousands of people that are involved in the work. But I think you can really give us credit for decisions we make, like putting Desperate Housewives on the schedule, giving Lost 100% of the marketing money, putting Grey's on Thursday and after the Super Bowl at the appropriate time.
I like to let the work speak for itself and let people take whatever credit they want, but I inherited a network that was in a distant fourth and hadn't put on a hit since Who Wants To Be a Millionaire. I would conservatively say we've put on five since then.
Does the criticism get to you?
You can't pretend that criticism doesn't bother you. I'm a competitive guy. To me, it's just about performance and building the strongest network. So be it that somebody wants to write what they want to write for whatever reasons they want to write it. You try to go home to your baby and kiss her and worry about what's important.
Carter spared few punches about your temper in his book.
Most of it I couldn't care less about. Some of the stuff that was personal attacks on me without any accountability I find despicable, but I guess that goes with the territory. Some people say it should have been called “Desperate Sources.”
Let's address the industry chatter about the on-going tension between ABC and Touchstone.
I think there's always going to be natural tension between the in-house studio and the network. Having been on both sides now, I have sympathy for both sides.
Is ABC pigeonholed among agents as the dysfunctional family comedy network?
If (a show) ends up being in the tradition of the single lead like Tim Allen or Rosanne, and if you would consider those dysfunctional families, then I think that yes, part of that is our brand. But we could easily be doing MASH.
Has your success led to more hour comedy pitches?
Yeah, we have some funny ones in development. One of my favorites is a title that, unfortunately, won’t ever make it on air. It was pitched as Big Dicks and it’s basically Desperate CEOs, bedrooms and boardrooms, a humorous look at male relationships and that life and their wives.
And what has Borat wrought in terms of pitches about improv reality?
We’ve gotten a lot of pitches on it, but what that will generate I don’t know. He is a singular talent and I don’t know if anything like that will work. It’s going to be interesting, just from an industry standpoint, what happens with hidden camera techniques, because there’s already tough issues legally in certain states, California being one of them.
What has been the toughest part of the job?
One of the most difficult things that I’ve dealt with (is) The Nine. Putting on a show that is that well produced, conceived and marketed, that week in and week out is an exceptional TV show, and to not get the performance is just really hard. So if you’re asking for one of my biggest frustrations that would be it.