The Biz: ABC's McPherson faces tough crowd

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A fresh face will take his first bows May 18 on stage at New York's New Amsterdam Theatre. His name is Stephen McPherson, and although he's been around the TV business for some time, this will be his first act after being thrust into the role of president of ABC Primetime Entertainment.

With barely enough time to memorize his lines, McPherson, 39, will host a variety show of new ABC programming that was, for the most part, none of his doing. The lineup is largely the work of his predecessor, Susan Lyne, and her boss, Lloyd Braun, former chairman, ABC Entertainment Television Group, who were let go last week.

By all accounts, Mr. McPherson-who moved up from his post as president of Walt Disney Co. sibling Touchstone Television-is personable, intelligent, well spoken and immersed in the creative world. He once worked at Fox Television, where he helped launch "The Ben Stiller Show," and at NBC, where he developed "NewsRadio" and "Just Shoot Me." He labored at Witt-Thomas-Harris and ABC Productions on "The Commish" and "My So-Called Life."

But McPherson's will face a tough crowd at the New Amsterdam.

"Don't know him," says Roger Schaffner, president-CEO of independent Palisades Media Group in Los Angeles, whose clients include top film companies. "ABC is changing riders at the end of the race. It just doesn't seem very smart, unless they are pretty well set on what they will do for their lineup."

lack of confidence

Peter Gardiner, partner-chief media director at Interpublic Group of Cos.' Deutsch, is not acquainted with McPherson either. "This means they have very little confidence in what they saw in their development meetings. Buyers came back from their presentations and were very unimpressed. ... This is Disney/ABC's way of saying we're going to put new horses in this race, and at least change the perception of what our lineup will look like."

The hope is McPherson can bring much-needed hits to ABC. At Touchstone, he was involved in the development of "CSI" and "Scrubs," and offered them to ABC first. After being refused, he brought one to CBS and the other to NBC where both became big hits. "It's like when Decca Records turned down the Beatles," said Shari Anne Brill, VP-director of programming, Aegis Group's Carat. "And Capitol Records came out on top."

"Imagine the tent poles ABC would have had," Schaffner says.

other changes

The management changes at ABC included the promotion of Anne Sweeney, president of ABC Cable Networks Group, to co-chair of Disney's Media Networks unit along with George Bodenheimer, president, ESPN and ABC Sports. Bodenheimer's duties remain the same, while Sweeney essentially replaces Braun, adding the ABC Television Network-which includes ABC Entertainment, ABC Daytime, ABC News and Touchstone Television-to her current responsibilities in the cable division. Both report to Bob Iger, Disney president-chief operating officer.

Sweeney will attend the upfront, but is not likely to take the stage with McPherson. But she said that "Our message to advertisers is clearly that there have been some successes, that we are very focused, that Steve is a person whom we have tremendous belief in...It is our intention to put the best schedule forward." She also says it's her job to make sure he has the power to make creative decisions about the network's lineup.

Dennis Holt, chairman of U.S. International Media, Los Angeles, says of Sweeney. "She is willing to sit down and brainstorm with people. The previous management built up this ego wall that you couldn't get around."

Some ABC insiders were surprised to see Alex Wallau survive the shake up. As president of ABC Television Networks, he was closely associated with ABC's past mistakes. Wallau's new job title is president-ABC Network Operations and Administration, reporting to Sweeney. "His duties have been scaled back," an ABC spokeswoman said.

contributing: t.l. stanley

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