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Raised Expectations

The honeymoon is over for ABC Entertainment President Stephen McPherson—at home and the office.

Back last week from a luxurious European vacation following his wedding, the 39-year-old now begins the arduous task for which he was brought in three months ago: moving ABC out of fourth place.

Expectations are high, given the daunting task ahead, and McPherson has no allusions about persuading American viewers to watch: "I think we need to bring the trust back to ABC."

Already, there are signs of life at ABC. It's too soon to tell whether those positive stirrings will result in the big hits the network needs to re-emerge from last place, but ABC's batch of new shows—particularly Desperate Housewives, Lost, Life as We Know It, Eyes
and Wife Swap—are the most-loved, most praised by TV critics this year.

"ABC is coming back to life. ABC now boasts a big collection of well-built new shows that are creating nearly as much buzz as the new executive team," opined The Oregonian.

The Philadelphia Inquirer
wrote: "The critics, a cantankerous and contentious bunch, are as close to consensus as they have been in years. In interview after interview, most agree that these are the new shows to watch this fall: Desperate Housewives, a partly satirical soap opera ... [and] Lost, in which survivors must cope after their plane crashes on a jungle isle."

That kind of praise is something ABC hasn't heard in a while. In the past few years, ABC has rolled out, one after another, mediocre family sitcoms and dramas that hit the air dead on arrival. But this season, McPherson stopped trying to program for middle America and instead picked shows he liked best.

"You just decide what you believe in creatively, and, secondarily, you look at how that can work for your network," he says. "First and foremost, it's whether you believe in a show."

ABC also has had some pleasant surprises this summer. First, the NBA Finals turned in their best ratings performance in three years (although still way below Michael Jordan's last championship, in 1998).

And The Days, a unique co-production of media firm MindShare North America and Tollin Robbins Productions, premiered as the No. 1 new drama of the summer with a 3.0 rating/

8 share among adults 18-49 and a 2.8/9 among adults 18-34. ABC had ordered six episodes of The Days, airing on Sundays at 10 p.m., but the show is likely to be renewed if it keeps up its ratings performance.

McPherson also has wasted no time in reorganizing the network and installing his own staff of development executives. In June, he appointed former Touchstone executive and producer Francie Calfo as ABC's head of comedy and drama development, a position that hadn't existed at the network in years. She, in turn, has brought over her own team from Touchstone.

Of course, it's impossible to tell whether viewers are going to take to the new shows. Last year, critics loved Karen Sisco, but it failed in its Wednesday 10 p.m. time slot against NBC steamroller Law & Order. Over the years, ABC had several critics' darlings, but they couldn't cut it, either.

In that time slot this fall, McPherson has scheduled Wife Swap. It will serve as counterprogramming to Law & Order
and CBS's new CSI: New York.

It's a tough position. But, with the two powerhouses slugging it out, maybe viewers tired of crime franchises will turn to Wife Swap, a funny, endearing reality show that arguably was the most talked-about show at the May upfront presentations.

Delaying the Wife Swap
premiere for a few months may have hurt it by allowing Fox to get on-air first with Trading Spouses: Meet Your New Mommy. But, by taking Trading Spouses
on last week with an original episode of Extreme Makeover, McPherson gave the TV world a taste of his scheduling plans. Trading Spouses
won in the demos, but McPherson scored points for making an effort to blunt Fox's move.

"I think we're going to see him be a lot more active in tweaking ABC than his predecessors," says Brad Adgate, senior vice president of corporate research at Horizon Media. "They were saying. 'We're going to plant these seeds and let them sprout.' McPherson will be more proactive and say, 'We're a player here,' instead of saying, in the words of Jimmy Kimmel, 'We're the fat kid that eats paste.'"

That said, McPherson knows the importance of creating a schedule that viewers can rely on, much as CBS has done.

"It's one thing to be aggressive with scheduling. It's another thing to generate a lack of consistency," he says. "It's important to stick with nights and a schedule that the public can tune into and know what's going to be on."

ABC also needs to bring in a hit, and McPherson just may have found the formula to do it.