The man who made hits out of Lost, Grey’s Anatomy, Desperate Housewives, and Modern Family has been shown the door. Vulture has confirmed that ABC Entertainment chief Steve McPherson is exiting his role overseeing both the Disney-owned network and its sister studio. Rumors about McPherson have become almost monthly occurrences around Hollywood, since he and his boss, Disney-ABC TV Group president Anne Sweeney, have clashed from almost the moment they began working together in 2005. Nonetheless, Sweeney signed McPherson to a new multi-year agreement last year and elevated him to a new gig expanding his role to include oversight of the Disney TV studio. So why the change, particularly after a season that saw ABC launch a new night of comedy anchored by Modern Family, and grow Castle into a much-needed procedural hit? Look for plenty of spin over the next few hours and days, with “personality clash” likely to be a very popular phrase attributed to sources close to the situation. Already, one outsider observer sums it up thusly: “Anne Sweeney finally got her way.” A Disney-ABC TV Group rep wasn’t immediately available for comment, and McPherson wasn’t in his office when Vulture called.
UPDATE: ABC Family chief Paul Lee, who’s helped turn that network into a young female powerhouse with Pretty Little Liars, The Secret Life of the American Teenager, and other buzzy dramas that target the CW audience (formerly the WB’s audience), is in line to replace McPherson, according to Variety. Lee’s savvy reaching female viewers could be handy as ABC begins to step up efforts to replace tentpole hits Desperate Housewives and Grey’s Anatomy, which, while still top-rated, have suffered major erosion in the past year.
But Lee will face a huge challenge: ABC’s development slate and roster of existing shows are dramatically larger than what he’s used to overseeing. Instead of working on two or three pilots a year, he’ll now oversee as many as two dozen possible projects annually. And he’ll also have to manage a crew of feisty show-runners who’d come to appreciate McPherson’s passionate support for them over the years: He’d often go to bat for producers even when Disney higher-ups wanted to cut costs. Disney’s companywide ethos for pinching pennies was known to be a major sore point for McPherson, who believed the network needed to invest significant sums to be successful. The network regularly produces more pilots than other networks and often greenlit more series than its rivals. While Sweeney gave McPherson some fiscal latitude, she’d also insist on cuts in other areas. For instance, over McPherson’s objection, ABC became the first (and only) major network to stop sending journalists advance screeners of new shows, forcing them to watch online. Disney said such a move was needed to save jobs; McPherson thought it to be a penny-wise move.
McPherson is getting a vote of confidence from at least one powerful Hollywood exec on his way out the door. When Vulture asked CBS Corp. chief executive Leslie Moonves for comment about McPherson’s sacking, he e-mailed us back, “Steve is always a showman and guided some of the most successful television shows in history. An extremely talented man.”
Despite the kind words, it’s unlikely Moonves will end up hiring McPherson, since CBS is doing quite well right now and doesn’t have any open posts. McPherson is unlikely to just fade away, however. Late Monday, he had his attorney contact Hollywood PR powerhouse Stan Rosenfield, who reps both George Clooney and Charlie Sheen; by late Tuesday afternoon, Rosenfield was onboard Team McSteve. Through Rosenfield, McPherson said he will soon will “reveal plans for my involvement in a new media company” and added that he’s also planning “a new entrepreneurial venture in the spirits business.” (McPherson already has a stake in a wine company, so he knows his booze.)
UPDATE 2: Modern Family co-creator Steve Levitan weighs in: “Steve is a longtime friend and has been a wonderful champion of Modern Family. He fought aggressively to bring it to ABC and then launched the hell out of it, which is all we can ask of a network president. While we’ve heard many good things about his reported successor, we’re sorry to see Steve go.”