A Cable Guy Takes Over At ABC

For those of us who are intrigued by the resignations and hirings of faceless TV executives (who control what we can and can’t see), last night Steve McPherson, who’s been the head of ABC since 2004, announced his resignation. This came just days before ABC’s presentation to the Television Critics Association, and a little over a month before the new season starts. It’s an awkward time for him to step down, but apparently his conflicts with his bosses, particularly his superior Anne Sweeney, became untenable. (Update: This article proposes an alternate story for why he left, though it’s not confirmed and McPherson’s lawyer told Variety that it’s all “gossip and innuendo.”)

McPherson’s tenure at ABC shows that it’s sometimes difficult to judge how well or badly an executive is doing. By some standards, he’s done very well, developing or supporting several major hits. By sheer numerical standards, though, the network’s ratings have fallen to near-NBC levels. It seems that the handful of hits — most of which are now aging — sort of distracted from the fact that the network wasn’t coming up with new shows to succeed them. Also, under McPherson, ABC had probably the most expensive development process in the business: they were known for their incredibly lavish pilots, many of which (like Pushing Daisies) created an almost-impossible standard of production values for the series to live up to.

His replacement, Paul Lee, immediately seemed like the obvious choice, given that he’s done an impressive job at ABC Family: he took a mostly-useless cable network, which had changed its name so often I’ve forgotten what it was originally, and built it into a success, with some very fine shows like Huge. (He also canceled The Middleman, which makes him an object of hatred on the internet, though.) That doesn’t mean, though, that he’s guaranteed to suceed at the bigger job. Lee rebuilt ABC Family by creating a brand that fit almost exactly between two other Disney networks: ABC is the grown-up network — so to speak — Disney Channel is the kids’ network, so ABC Family would be the transition spot, where people go when they’re too old for Disney Channel. And it can be used to plug shows on ABC, helping to build young viewers’ interest in shows that are on the big network.

That doesn’t apply as much to a big broadcast network; they have “brands” but they’re very vague, or should be. Sometimes a cable executive from a network with a very focused, tightly-branded lineup struggles with the more diverse offerings at a broadcast network: a recent example is Peter Liguori going from FX to Fox. Lee may have an easier time of it because ABC Family is more of a mainstream network, and does shows in genres that are pretty familiar on broadcast — albeit with mostly younger characters. Comedy development seems like a weaker spot for ABC Family than drama, but I don’t know how much of that is due to Lee specifically.

The final thing: with new blood at ABC, maybe this is an opportunity for someone to cut the music scoring at the network’s shows. All it takes is a few phone calls telling producers that not every scene needs to have music under it, and that the audience will get that a scene is supposed to be funny without wacky pizzicato plucking. (I’ve said before that the biggest advantage of Modern Family‘s mock-doc format is that it allowed them not to have a ton of music, a rarity at this network.) Of course, the new guy might decide he wants to put his stamp on the network by ordering even more music, which would mean shows will have 42 minutes of scoring instead of just 40.

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