By Lee Hall
Special to TelevisionWeek
Wall Street’s loss was television’s gain: Stephen McPherson gave up what could have been a lucrative career as an investment banker and trader to pursue his passion for entertainment.
Mr. McPherson, president of ABC Entertainment, this week becomes the first recipient of the Televisionary Award from the Academy of Television Arts & Sciences. The new accolade recognizes a significant contributor to diversity in the television industry.
“In town he is known as being a very pro-social, pro-change leader in diversity. He is a very smart choice as the first recipient of this honor,” said Academy Chairman and CEO Dick Askin.
Mr. McPherson, who oversees ABC’s prime-time and late-night programming and scheduling, shepherded some of the network’s biggest breakout hits. In his previous job as president of Touchstone Television, he oversaw development of “Desperate Housewives,” “Grey’s Anatomy” and “Lost,” all ratings hits and each cited by the academy as beacons of diversity.
“Grey’s Anatomy” was created and executive produced by Shonda Rhimes, the first black female showrunner on a drama series. The cast of “Lost” represents one of the most diverse blends of lead characters ever seen on prime-time television.
“What he has done is extraordinary,” said Marcy De Veaux, who chairs the academy’s diversity committee. “Bringing women over 40 back to television in ‘Desperate Housewives,’ and so many people of color both behind and in front of the camera, shows a real commitment.”
Donna Michelle Anderson, executive producer of Tidal Wave TV and co-chair of the diversity committee, called Mr. McPherson the clear choice to be the academy’s first Televisionary honoree.
“He truly is trying to find the best people and the best shows, and he doesn’t seem to have a filter on where to look for either of the two. That’s what I find most refreshing,” she said.
The expanding cast in the second season of “Boston Legal” will include a new black lawyer, played by Ryan Michelle Bathe, in part due to Mr. McPherson’s prodding of the show’s producers.
“In every one of our meetings with producers, he asks how we can have more diversity on the show. That’s really important when it comes from the president of the company,” said Keli Lee, executive VP of casting for the ABC Entertainment Television Group.
Mr. McPherson said he is committed to expanding ABC’s diversity programs behind the scenes as well.
“Great acting begins on the page,” he said. “You have to have great writing to start, and there has been a lack of diverse voices in the writing pipeline.”
The Walt Disney Studios and ABC Entertainment, in partnership with the Writers Guild of America, support a talent development program to identify and employ a diverse pool of creative writing talent.
ABC partners with the Directors Guild of America in a mentorship program to pair developing directors with established directors, executive producers, showrunners and creative executives.
“He helped to secure more than $500,000 in Disney funding for a program that guarantees hiring of at least 10 promising minority and female directors,” Mr. Askin said.
The idea, Mr. McPherson said, is to make it as easy for show producers to locate and hire directors of diverse backgrounds. ABC and the DGA perform the “dirty work” of gathering and screening candidates and presenting producers with a manageable short list, “as opposed to submitting a list of, say, 200 candidates and have the producers say they don’t have time to go through and look at 200 names, so they’ll just continue to work with the people they know,” Mr. McPherson said.
The DGA in January presented Mr. McPherson with its Diversity Award, noting his “outstanding commitment to and leadership in the hiring of women and ethnic minorities in DGA categories.” It was only the fourth time the group chose to bestow the honor in its 57-year history.
“In an industry where commitment to diversity often amounts to little more than lip service, Steve McPherson has taken action and produced substantive results. He is an exception to the rule,” DGA President Michael Apted said in announcing the award.
Not There Yet
Though the industry has made notable progress in promoting diversity, Mr. McPherson said it needs to do more.
“Diversity sometimes gets a bad name because people feel like it’s some social agenda that’s being pushed. I really think it benefits the creative process at the end of the day to have the broadest set of individuals that you can draw from to create what you put on the air,” he said.
Mr. McPherson’s work to promote diversity is not without its critics. He took some heat this summer over the network’s proposed reality show “Welcome to the Neighborhood,” in which white residents of an Austin, Texas, community were to choose new neighbors from among several ethnically and culturally diverse families. ABC pulled the show less than two weeks before its scheduled premiere this summer, a move Mr. McPherson defended at the annual Television Critics Association press tour.
“It was a challenging show that we knew would be provocative,” he said. “After seeing it, we realized that viewers might be confused by the message that was intended.”
Mr. McPherson, a Pittsburgh native, graduated from Cornell University with a degree in government and political science and a minor in theater.
“Everyone kind of said that theater was a very nice interest, now go down to Wall Street and make money,” he said.
While working as an investment banker, he attended night classes at the Tisch School of the Arts at New York University. He began his industry career as a driver for TV producer Tony Thomas, but soon became director of development for Witt-Thomas-Harris Productions.
Mr. McPherson moved rapidly up the ranks, serving as director of current programming for Fox, where he helped launch “Martin” and “The Ben Stiller Show,” and later as VP of prime-time series at NBC.
In June 2001 he was named president of Touchstone Television, where he developed successful series for ABC as well as for CBS (“CSI”), NBC (“Scrubs”) and USA Network (“Monk”).
Title: President, ABC Entertainment
Who knew? A devoted oenophile, Mr. McPherson is producing his own wine, a cabernet, in Napa Valley, Calif.