McPherson looks to shake up ABC

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FORMER TOUCHSTONE TELEVISION President Stephen McPherson, 39, stepped in as president ABC prime-time entertainment on April 20 this year, succeeding Susan Lyne. He arrived at his new post during a difficult time for the Walt Disney Co. network, which is under tremendous pressure to revamp its lineup in order to regain a more respectable place among the broadcast networks. Mr. McPherson now has responsibility for development, programming, marketing and scheduling, and ABC hopes his prior championing of hit shows-such as "CSI: Crime Scene Investigation," which airs on CBS, and NBC's comedy "Scrubs"-will work in its favor. He sat down with Advertising Age reporter Claire Atkinson to discuss his desire to sell ABC to the entertainment community and his willingness to work with agencies on new financing models.

AA: Do you have any goal in mind for ratings you'd like to achieve?

McPherson: We're not looking at it in terms of drawing a line in the sand or coming up with a number. We're looking at improving a few time periods, and coming out with some strong nights that we'll strengthen with a number of additions, or just consolidation and then one addition. We'd like to have some more assets when we come to play next spring and more returning shows that are assets we can use throughout the schedule.

AA: Who are the producers you want working at ABC?

McPherson: There are certain people everyone knows that have delivered an enormous amount of programming, whether it's Jerry Bruckheimer, John Wells, David Kelley or Steven Bochco. They are people who deliver year-in-year-out and you certainly go after those names. We want to make this as friendly a place to those names as possible. We need all the support we can get and we have some great opportunities for people who are in the programming business. We're also looking for new names. Anthony Zuiker, when he wrote "CSI," was not a big name. He was a kid from Las Vegas who was really talented and had written one feature that had gotten him some acclaim. Now he's obviously fathered this huge franchise.

AA: Do you have an ideal family in mind when you think about what's going to work for the ABC viewer?

McPherson: We're a broad-audience network. We love to have shows that people can sit down with their family and watch. We also have had a long history of dramas that aren't necessarily family shows-"NYPD Blue", "Thirtysomething"-that are really signature dramas. Those are in the later hour. There is a certain tone to a lot of what we do. Take our comedies on Tuesday and Friday nights. They are both strong family oriented point-of-view parenting shows and we'll look to extend those in ways we haven't gone after. We're not going to suddenly go off and do a show that could only air on HBO just to get attention. That's really not a business for us. We have to know the viewers that we have and we have to grow that viewer base. You have to be really cognizant of the people who are coming to ABC and then people you can get to come to the set.

AA: When you look at pilots, do you have a gut instinct about them, or do you see how they test?

McPherson: In the end, it's a gut call. Testing is an imperfect tool. You can use it to make changes or get a different perspective, but in the end, you have to make a gut call as to what you believe in creatively, what entertains you, and what is right for ABC.

AA: You recently aired all of the new season's shows for the ABC staff. How did you incorporate the feedback that you got from [president-sales and marketing] Mike Shaw and others?

McPherson: We're in the television business, and everybody-whether they're selling advertising time or scheduling or developing shows-is involved in creating television, in creating a schedule and selling it. You want to have everybody in the company invested in the process of TV because that's the business we're in. So it's great to get different perspectives to keep people excited about what they're doing. When you're an executive, you have a very specific point of view, a certain relationship with the talent, a concept and sometimes you just want a completely different perspective. Mike Shaw is head of sales, but he lives in New York, not Los Angeles. He brings a different perspective....You want to get the widest range of perspectives that you can get.

AA: Did he tell you what kind of shows the advertisers go for?

McPherson: Not really. We talked more philosophically about what works for him and doesn't. When they pitched me their schedule ... it was more what they responded to, [as well as] what they thought they could sell. But it was more what they thought were the great shows and what could help ABC. At the end of the day, if a show succeeds, there will be advertisers who want to be a part of it.

AA: We're seeing a lot more advertisers involved in the financing of shows. Where do you see the whole convergence of Madison + Vine going?

McPherson: I'm still a creative and it's still all about getting great programming on the air. If these kind of relationships and involvement by the ad agencies help me get more programming that we're excited about, sometimes at a lesser cost, then I'm all for it. But it can never drive the creative. The nature of our business will see more people giving things a shot, like our MindShare deal or other product integration. But as a network we will only look at them if they make sense from a creative standpoint or facilitate our ability to get better programming on the air.

AA: Doesn't ABC need to be acting like a movie studio in buying time on other channels to promote its own shows, and be extremely aggressive?

McPherson: Yes, we do need to be very aggressive. We also need to be extremely strategic about the way we go about it. When you have some of the difficulties we've had, you have less of a base to promote the shows. We're going to look to be very targeted about specific shows [and use] paid media and outdoor [when it] can help us. Hopefully, we'll have a lot more forethought to how we're launching things, in fall or midseason, and what audience we're selling them to. If you look at "Life as We Know It," it wouldn't be marketed in the same way as "Desperate Housewives." "Desperate Housewives" can be sold on a lot of Disney entities, whether it's Disney daytime, or Soapnet or Lifetime, and on our air, whereas "Life" we have to go and get an audience that doesn't watch ABC.

AA: Do you foresee hiring an ad agency to go out and buy outside media?

McPherson: Absolutely, that's a possibility.

AA: What have you changed at ABC since you've arrived?

McPherson: I bring a certain personality, which is to streamline things, to be as inclusive as possible, as straightforward and targeted as possible. That can mean anything from who's involved in a weekly staff meeting or what the long-term marketing plan for our network is. Again that is a personality thing that anyone brings to a job that they do. The biggest change is that ABC, as a network, are buyers. I've been at a studio most of my life selling. In this environment, we have to be proactive and really treat the community as if you are selling ABC to them, that this is the place to be, the place to succeed, where there's great opportunity and we've decided to bring that to bear as much as possible.

AA: How do you do that?

McPherson: I spent the first morning back [from the upfronts] with a number of big producers just sitting with them in their offices saying, 'What do I have to do to make you come back?' And asking, 'What were the issues you had? What can we do together right now?' It is just an attitude about being in business that you are pro-active rather than reactive.

AA: And what do you change internally, given that there has been a lot written about the number of fingers in the pie at ABC?

McPherson: I do think things are best served when there's a singular point of view. That doesn't necessarily have to be one person. If the community understands what we're doing in terms of our development, the tone of things we're looking for, then it makes it much easier for them to deliver for us. The point of view of a network can translate to all its staff and that is what we'd like to have, so when people are selling to us, they know exactly what we're looking for.

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