Anne Sweeney and Steve McPherson have a lot of catching up to do.
The two new leaders at ABC will have their first meeting this week to quickly get to know ABC’s development and each other.
When Ms. Sweeney was named co-chair of Disney’s Media Networks unit and Mr. McPherson got the title of president of ABC Primetime Entertainment last week, they inherited 29 pilots from the previous regime. They have just four weeks to decide which ones will have a place on ABC’s schedule, which will be announced at the upfront May 18 in New York.
ABC’s upfront was going to be challenging enough considering the network has been mired in fourth place in the key sales demo of adults 18 to 49 and was just passed by Fox in total viewers. ABC is also down the most year to year of all the Big 4 networks, with a 13 percent drop in adults 18 to 49 and a 9 percent drop in total viewers.
With the swift departures of ABC Entertainment President Susan Lyne and ABC Entertainment Chairman Lloyd Braun in the past few weeks, it’s not going to be easy for the new management team to jump in and convince media buyers that ABC is the best choice to place their ad dollars.
While Mr. McPherson has been in the ABC Television fold this season as president of Touchstone Television, developing 15 of the network’s 28 pilots, “What will be hard for him is the upfronts,” said one rival network executive. “He’s been around the upfronts before, but the enormity of that position is a surprise.”
Mr. McPherson and his new boss Ms. Sweeney will also have to decide whether they want to keep the key strategies Ms. Lyne and Mr. Braun have been preaching to advertisers all spring: creating a schedule with 10 to 12 comedies on it and appealing to female viewers with light-hearted dramas that would mesh well with their sitcom audiences.
“I honestly don’t know yet [if those strategies will remain],” Ms. Sweeney said in an interview late last week. “My first meetings with Steve and the creative team start next week. Right now I’m just digesting a lot of paper.”
One thing that won’t happen is shared development with ABC’s cable networks, which Ms. Sweeney also oversees.
“We’re very focused,” she said. “Priorities one through 10 are obviously ABC prime time, and that’s why we have Steve McPherson in there to be president of prime-time entertainment [and be] totally focused a thousand percent on making that into a more valuable daypart for the network. We won’t have any intermingling of projects between the cable industries and the broadcast network.”
Advertisers should feel comfortable supporting ABC in the upfront even though the programmers who bought all the pilots are gone, she said. “We are totally committed to putting together the strongest schedule for the network,” she said. “Many members of that team, the people who did the development work and did the current, are in their positions and are following through on all of those shows.”
With the pressure of the upfronts on them, Ms. Sweeney and Mr. McPherson will also have to learn how they can best work together. While both executives have run different divisions within the Disney organization, they have never worked together before.
“I know Steve McPherson more from his track record,” Ms. Sweeney said. “I’m an admirer of his work. Certainly his reputation for being a strong creative with a strong vision is well known and respected.”
They also will have to motivate the troops, who may have some lingering resentment over how ABC treated the popular Ms. Lyne, whom Ms. Sweeney also knows well, having served with her on the Lifetime board. Just last month at an investors conference, Disney President Bob Iger was praising Ms. Lyne and publicly declaring her the future of ABC programming, only to push her out last week by offering the top programming job to Mr. McPherson.
Insiders said that whether Mr. McPherson and Ms. Sweeney can succeed hinges on one question: Have Mr. Iger and Disney Chairman Michael Eisner finally learned their lesson and decided to let their top TV programmers schedule the network without interference.
Ms. Sweeney said she has been assured that she and Mr. McPherson will be able to call the shots at ABC.
“I can’t speak to what has transpired at the network in the past,” said Ms. Sweeney, who was head of ABC Cable Networks before her promotion last week. “The only thing I can speak to is the working relationship that I have with them. I’ve been afforded a great deal of autonomy in my job. It’s been a collaborative effort at times, but I haven’t felt micromanaged by them. I’ve had a great deal of freedom in a larger corporation to run the business as I see fit. It’s my strong feeling that that’s the relationship we’re going to have going forward.”
Mr. McPherson declined comment for this story, but several sources said he too has been told he will be able to set the fall schedule. At Touchstone, Mr. McPherson has been disappointed in years past by the network passing on shows he developed that went on to become hits elsewhere, such as “CSI,” “Scrubs” and “Monk.”
“The biggest difference between him and everyone else is that Steve grew up in the TV business and has been doing it his entire adult career,” said Jay Sures, co-head of the TV department at talent agency UTA. “That’s what has differentiated him among some of the other people that have been brought into ABC in the past. Hopefully he’s gotten the assurances from Iger and Eisner that they are going to let him set the schedule and do his thing.”
Another thing Mr. McPherson had going for him was leverage. His contract at Touchstone was up in June, and Disney did not want to lose the executive to a rival.
Those in the creative community describe Mr. McPherson as passionate, straightforward and competitive. He’s a fighter, they say, who is not going to settle for fourth place.
“When you develop with Steve I always felt like he was doing everything possible to get that show picked up,” said Sue Naegle, co-head of UTA’s TV department, noting that he was a huge champion of “Scrubs,” which ABC passed on. “He believed so completely in that that he takes tremendous satisfaction that it was a hit for NBC.”
Nina Wass, who has a development deal at Touchstone with partner Gene Stein, said Mr. McPherson has been very supportive of the animated pilot they have been developing for Fox with Jonathan Katz, despite the fact that they have never done animation before and it’s not cheap.
Producers praise him as a writer’s executive who knows when to get involved and, more important, when to back off. The consensus of the creative community is that Mr. McPherson has mainstream tastes but gravitates toward smart programs with an edge or distinctive quality.
Brian Robbins said Mr. McPherson was the main reason he and his partner Mike Tollin moved their Tollin-Robbins shingle from Warner Bros. to Touchstone last year.
“We really hit it off creatively,” Mr. Robbins said. “A lot of people who have that job are executives. I think of him more as a producer, a creative guy. I don’t feel like he’s caught up at all in the politics. He says what he means and means what he says and does what he says he’s going to do. He’ll tell you the good and the bad.”
While most producers consider Mr. McPherson’s blunt honesty an asset, not everyone wants to hear the bad. As a network executive, he will need to keep his cool and have the finesse to deal with sensitive talent. Producers said they’re not worried that non-Touchstone-produced pilots will get the short shrift.
And a good dose of honesty might be just what ABC needs. “Steve has been a guy who is known to question authority if he thinks it is wrong,” Mr. Sures said.
“Steve is smart enough to say, `I need hits. I`ll take that anywhere I can get it,”’ said Warren Littlefield, who was president of NBC Entertainment when Mr. McPherson was a young development executive there years ago.
Mr. Littlefield said Mr. McPherson called him last week and was anxious to see “Harry Green and Eugene,’
‘ the Paramount-produced pilot that Mr. Littlefield is executive producing for ABC.
“The message that came out of ABC loud and clear was, `We do not want to be a network that is just a Disney Touchstone network. We need hits. We want to make sure our doors are open to the entire creative community,”’ Mr. Littlefield said.