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Shakeup In ABC ‘Family’

Some TV insiders may have seen ABC Entertainment Group President
Steve McPherson’s departure coming weeks ago, but it doesn’t
seem as though those in the network’s affiliate body are among them. Blindsided by the creative chief’s resignation,
many among the 200-plus ABC affiliates nationwide are concerned about the
network keeping its momentum with a key
figure out of the picture.

“I had no idea it was coming,” says WCPO
Cincinnati VP/General Manager Bill Fee, who
runs one of the top-rated ABC affi liates in the
country. “We’d seen wind in our sails recently
with some good, solid, family-oriented programming,
which plays well here. If there’s
change at the top of the network, it’s of concern
to us.”

McPherson issued a resignation letter July
27. An e-mail advisory from the network went
to affiliates later that day, though many said
they did not learn the news until they read it
in the media the next morning. (“Thank God
for a free press,” said one general manager
who learned of McPherson’s departure on

McPherson’s resignation coincided with
the start of the annual TCA Summer Press Tour, and landed just five days before ABC
was to present its new slate to the nation’s
most infl uential television critics in Los Angeles—
a slate hatched by McPherson himself.
At presstime, ABC Family President Paul Lee
was expected to replace McPherson.

“The timing leaves a bunch of questions,”
grouses one GM at a midsize ABC affi liate in
the Midwest who asked not to be named.

The affiliates largely credit McPherson for
jump-starting ABC’s wheezing primetime
when he took over the presidency in 2004;
dramas such as Grey’s Anatomy, Lost and
Desperate Housewives became hits and even
pop-culture touchstones. One affi liate calls
McPherson a “rock star,” and another labels
him the “brainchild” of ABC’s prime turnaround.
“I tip my cap to the creative efforts he
made,” says ABC affiliates board chairman Bill
Hoffman, who heads up Cox’s WSB Atlanta.
“He served the affiliates group well during his
tour of duty.”

More recently, McPherson hatched ABC’s
Wednesday comedy block, The Middle, Modern
and Cougar Town, at a time when
the sitcom genre was flatlining. Several affiliates
single out Modern Family for being fresh,
funny and, most important, particularly popular
with viewers in their markets. “He’s done
a great job programming the last few years,”
says WBMA Birmingham President/General
Manager Mike Murphy. “He brought energy
and some new and exciting programs to the
table; I think most all ABC affiliates are very
pleased with the job he’s done.”

But despite McPherson’s successes, ABC’s
cornerstone dramas are getting old, and the
last hour of prime remains a gaping concern
for affiliates, which rely on that hour to
serve up maximum viewers for their lucrative
late local news. The issue was Topic A
when 175 affiliates met in Las Vegas in May.
“We continue to be concerned about the last
hour of prime, which is particularly important
for a station like ours with strong local
news,” says KMBC Kansas City President/
General Manager Wayne Godsey, whose station
is also among the top ABC affiliates.
“We’ve been partners with the network for
a long time, and hope to continue being
partners for a long time. We trust them to
fix this.”

Getting to know Lee
Lee is largely an unknown quantity among
executives at ABC-affiliated stations. But most
express their trust in Disney Media Networks
Co-Chair/Disney-ABC Television Group
President Anne Sweeney tapping the right
person, and believe it is too close to the fall
season for McPherson’s near-term strategy to
be overhauled.

Most seem willing to give the incoming
entertainment chief the benefit of the doubt,
and will keep their fingers crossed as September
approaches. “I hope ABC continues to be
aggressive,” says WTEN Albany General Sales
Manager Ron Romines, “and keeps moving
the new stuff forward.”

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