As McPherson Departs, ABC Faces Challenges

With Scheduling Architect Leaving, Disney Network Needs New Programs to Bolster Aging Hits

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NEW YORK ( -- ABC has abruptly parted ways with the architect of its fall prime-time schedule, just weeks before the new TV season is set to get underway.

Stephen McPherson
Stephen McPherson Credit: ABC
The Walt Disney network said Tuesday night that it has accepted the resignation of Stephen McPherson, president of ABC Entertainment -- a development that came as a surprise, with the network set to discuss its new fall shows this week in front of an annual meeting of TV critics in California.

"Steve McPherson today submitted his resignation as president, ABC Entertainment Group, and the company accepted," a statement from Disney/ABC Television Group said. "A replacement for Mr. McPherson will be announced shortly."

As surprising as the announcement may be, TV networks have a long history of parting ways with with entertainment chiefs at inopportune moments. NBC's then-entertainment chief Kevin Reilly, who now oversees a similar function at News Corp.'s Fox, was pushed from the Peacock in 2007 just a few weeks after he had unveiled that network's prime-time schedule. His replacement, Ben Silverman, didn't last much longer than two seasons.

But the change at ABC now highlights its tough position heading into the 2010-2011 TV season. The network has a number of bright lights -- "Desperate Housewives" and "Grey's Anatomy" among them -- but those two shows are aging sources of illumination. "Dancing with the Stars" is a bona fide hit, but Fox's "American Idol" still brings in a greater number of the younger viewers advertisers covet. And "Modern Family," while a successful show that has garnered lots of attention in just one year on the air, is still not a hit on the order of CBS's top crime procedurals.

Indeed, ABC heads into the new season more or less tied with NBC in third place for viewers between 18 and 49. (Keep in mind that NBC's lineup last season got a ratings boost from several weeks of Olympics telecasts.) And ABC faces the absence of its cult favorite "Lost," which recently completed its run. In short, the network has failed in recent years to bolster its aging champs with a solid number of good-looking prospects.

Mr. McPherson has a reputation as an intense executive with whom it could be difficult to cultivate a relationship. Among advertisers, he was seen as a guardian of ABC content, trying to keep it safe from the deeper kinds of brand integration that many marketers are demanding these days.

Only in the last year or so has ABC been seen by ad buyers as relaxing its grip, allowing such things as the U.S.S. Enterprise from Paramount's 2009 "Star Trek" movie floating out of the intro to "Lost" or, earlier this year, letting characters from "Ugly Betty" and "The Middle" appear in ads for Nestle's Stouffer's during commercial breaks on the night those shows aired.

Even so, ABC may have to demonstrate greater flexibility. Just this past season, CBS -- another network that has tried to hold a line against intrusive product placements -- allowed General Motors' Buick to weave use of new features in its LaCrosse sedan into "The Good Wife." The advertiser was able to have a character in the show make use of new dashboard technology as part of the plot, then have the scene bolstered by a traditional commercial during the ensuing ad break.

ABC displayed little outright passion for its fall line-up at its upfront presentation this past spring. The network has readied a number of new comedies; "Detroit 1-8-7," a new police drama; a new medical drama from "Grey's Anatomy" showrunner Shonda Rhimes; and "No Ordinary Family," about a clan of superheroes. Yet the network offered a bare-bones presentation that didn't get buyers really chatting -- in contrast with an upfront presentation a year earlier that had everyone crowing about the soon-to-debut "Modern Family."

ABC will head into the fall with a new entertainment chief, who will join a new ad-sales chief. Geri Wang, a veteran ABC ad-sales executive, was tapped to replace longtime ad-sales head Mike Shaw earlier this year.

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