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Madison Avenue Has High Hopes for Paul Lee

Ad buyers were surprised by Steve McPherson's sudden departure as ABC's programming chief and praised his competitiveness, while noting that he had only limited success in replacing the network's biggest shows as they aged.

Some buyers also noted that McPherson wasn't as accessible to ad buyers as some of his counterparts at the other networks and made it difficult for sponsors to integrate their products into new scripted series. Ad execs also say they have high hopes for expected replacementPaul Lee.

"Steve brought some great shows to ABC," said Jackie Kulesza, senior VP/broadcast activation director for media agency Starcom USA. "They certainly had been in the process of an upswing when he got there and he maintained that," though she added, "they have had a little trouble of late."

"I think he did a satisfactory job at ABC," said Brad Adgate of Horizon Media. "He was smart enough to leave things that were working alone like Lost, Desperate Housewives and Grey's Anatomy," which went on the air as he took the reins of the network after helping develop them as head of ABC's studio.

"I think the new programs under his aegis were not as successful as those three although there were some promising shows like Pushing Daisies that were cut short by the writer's strike," he said. ("I continue to personally believe that Pushing Daisies and Dirty Sexy Money were wonderful shows that just never made it back from the strike," seconds Kulesza.)

Adgate added that "last season McPherson was finally able to launch a successful comedy block led by Modern Family."

"It was really hit or miss. No one has a perfect batting average," said Shari Brill, longtime programming chief at media buyer Carat and now an industry analyst. "One of the best shows on ABC is gone [Lost] and the other two are aging. It was really to develop the heirs that he wasn't able to do."

And while McPherson was typically enthusiastic about some of ABC's shows debuting this fall, notably No Ordinary Family and My Generation, Ms. Brill says that with the schedule he leaves behind "I don't see them poised for growth."
Under McPherson, she added, a number of shows got the green light that were questionable. Brill said, including Cavemen and Hank. Other comedies that could have been more successful, such as Ugly Betty and Samantha Who? got bounced from time slot to time slot.

Scheduling long mid-season break also hurt the network's sci-fi oriented shows including Flash Forward and even Lost because when they came back, many views didn't return, Brill said.

Ultimately, some ad buyers noted that they're never surprised to see a network programmer depart. McPherson had actually enjoyed a relatively long tenure in the job, one buyer noted. Buyers tend mostly to judge network programming chief by whether or not they deliver the eyeballs they promise. And they'd rather get those eyeballs from good scripted shows than from reality programming.

"I think buyers liked him; he was a competitor," said Adgate, who also admired the way he and Edyta Sliwinski from Dancing With the Stars performed during one of ABC Upfront. "That one was the best upfront moments in recent years," he said.

But one buyer said that when new shows were developed, McPherson opposed letting sponsors get too involved because he felt the shows needed time to develop and that product integration would serve as a distraction from the creative process.

On the other hand, ABC's unscripted shows were very advertiser friendly, the buyer noted.

Buyers had good things to say about McPherson's replacement Paul Lee, who has been running ABC Family.

Kulesza noted that ABC Family's original programming -- including the new shows Huge and Pretty Little Liars -- have been delivering record breaking numbers.

"We have high expectations for him," she said. "I feel that at ABC Family, Paul has been a great partner and look forward to him continuing that at ABC."

Brill is also impressed with what Lee accomplished at ABC Family.

"He's created an image for that network which everybody just thought was just a bad investment, a dumping ground for failed ABC Shows. It was just a mishmash," she said.

Brill also noted that Lee's resume includes a stint as a BBC reporter stationed in Belfast.

"He's been behind enemy lines. That kind of background might help him run a network."