ABC exec steps down

After a tumultuous six-year reign, ABC Entertainment President Steve McPherson stepped down, the network said Tuesday, after repeated clashes with his bosses that reached a climax in the last few days after he got wind that a replacement was in the wings.

The move comes less than two months before the start of the fall TV season, and just six days before ABC executives are scheduled to tout their new shows to the nation’s TV critics in Beverly Hills. Although a drumbeat of rumors about McPherson’s fate had been building for months, many in the television industry expected ABC and its owner, Walt Disney Co., to wait and see how the new fall shows fared before making a decision.

McPherson is expected to be succeeded by Paul Lee, president of Disney’s ABC Family cable channel, which has turned out a string of hits in recent years. Lee’s appointment would be the second executive that Disney recently plucked from its highly profitable cable TV division to take control of a struggling operation. Last fall, Rich Ross, president of Disney Channels Worldwide, was put in charge of Walt Disney Studios in a move that presaged a shakeup of the media giant’s movie studio.

Whether Disney Chief Executive Robert Iger has a similar transformation in mind for Disney’s broadcast TV operations is unclear. The network has suffered declining ratings and ABC ended the most recent season tied for third place with hard-luck NBC among viewers 18 to 49, the audience most sought by advertisers. ABC averaged 8.7 million viewers a night in prime time, far behind CBS, which boasted an average of 11.9 million viewers.


McPherson, who played an instrumental role in ABC’s turn-around in 2004 by shaping such hits as “Desperate Housewives,” and later “Grey’s Anatomy,” was unable to produce a crop of new hits to pick up the slack as those popular but aging shows.

Exacerbating McPherson’s increasingly untenable position was his testy relationship with his boss, Anne Sweeney, president of the Disney ABC Television Group. The constant management strife within the division, some complained, fostered a dysfunctional atmosphere.

During the last season, McPherson was able to launch a few new hits, including “Modern Family.” But even in success McPherson faced a problem. Disney wants to develop hits from ABC’s in-house production division and “Modern Family” is made by News Corp.'s 20th Century Fox Television Studio, which will deny Disney large profits.

“Steve has been incredibly supportive of ‘Modern Family.’ It’s always scary for a show to have its biggest champion leave,” said Steve Levitan, co-creator of the comedy.

News of his sudden exit reverberated around Hollywood late Tuesday afternoon.

“I’m just shocked. We’ve had a really good run with Steve. It would send the network into upheaval, which is always scary for everyone,” said Eileen Heisler, co-creator of “The Middle,” a first-year sitcom that ABC is bringing back for a second season. “There is lots of upheaval that goes on at the network level, you just keep trying to make the best show you can.”

McPherson himself, in true Hollywood fashion, hired a high-powered publicist to announce his abrupt career change.

“I will be announcing my future plans shortly which will include a new entrepreneurial venture in the spirits business,” McPherson’s statement said. “While I will continue with my ongoing wine business, I’ll also reveal plans for my involvement in a new media company.”