NEW YORK (AdAge.com) -- The man who helped ABC generate a buzzy cult following for "Lost" and turn "Dancing with the Stars" into a larger phenomenon is stepping down as the Walt Disney network continues to shuffle its top executive ranks.
Michael D. Benson, exec VP-marketing at ABC's Entertainment Group, confirmed in an email to Advertising Age a report on New York magazine's Vulture blog that he is leaving his post. Mr. Benson, who has long supervised the marketing and promoting of ABC's programs, was instrumental in launching such hits as "Desperate Housewives" and "Grey's Anatomy."
"I will move on to pursue other opportunities," he said. "I've truly enjoyed my time at ABC and Disney."
An ABC spokeswoman said Paul Lee, who recently took over as president of ABC Entertainment Group, would be taking a more active role in the marketing and promotion of ABC's shows, and indicated that Mr. Benson decided to step down as a result of that decision. Marla Provencio, another exec VP who has worked in tandem with Mr. Benson, is staying with the network.
Latest exit at ABC
Mr. Benson's departure marks the fourth time in less than a year that ABC has decided to part ways with a senior executive. Since the start of the year, ABC has installed a new head of ad sales and a new head of entertainment, with veteran ad-sales chief Mike Shaw and closely watched entertainment head Steven McPherson both leaving. Earlier this week, the network's head of news, David Westin, announced he would depart by the end of 2010.
ABC has come under much scrutiny in recent months. The network has largely failed to develop new hits to help bolster its schedule as past glories including "Grey's," "Housewives" and "Lost" started to age. "Lost" closed its run on TV at the end of the 2009-2010 season. While "Modern Family" has proven a bright spot for ABC, its drawing power is less robust than those other mainstay programs. ABC's position behind CBS and Fox has become so noticeable that executives at NBC, the General Electric network whose ratings woes have persisted for several seasons, have started taking pot-shots at the network in the media, perhaps sensing a third-place berth within easier reach.
Speculation that Disney might want to sell ABC has also sprouted over the past year. During a recent conference call with investors to discuss earnings, Disney CEO Robert Iger said, "I don't have anything new to add to the discussion about the makeup of our asset base," while outlining plans to develop more shows to bolster the network's prime-time lineup. At the time, Mr. Iger said ABC's lineup as developed under Mr. McPherson was "in relatively decent shape."
Entertainment Marketers of the Year
Mr. Benson and Ms. Provencio were named to the ranks of "Entertainment Marketer of the Year" by Advertising Age in 2005, 2007 and 2008 for their work in promoting "Desperate Housewives," "Ugly Betty" and "Dancing with the Stars." Among the ideas they put into practice were placing advertising on dry-cleaning bags for "Housewives," having people dress up as stars in public venues for "Dancing with the Stars" -- an effort to get people to think of the program as glamorous rather than cheesy -- and creating a viral online experience for "Lost" that incorporated such marketers as Verizon Wireless and Coca-Cola's Sprite.
Mr. Benson was also instrumental in sparking the trend of promoting new fall shows earlier than ever. Along with Fox, which started to promote "Glee" in late spring of 2009, ABC has started running on-air promos for new shows as soon as executives decided to put them on the fall schedule, resulting in late-spring ads for such shows as "Flash Forward" and this season's "Detroit 1-8-7." Mr. Benson joined ABC from MTV Networks' VH1 in 1998.