Was ABC Boss A Victim Of Mood Swings, Or Critical Misses?

by | July 28, 2010 at 4:17 PM | TV News

Stephen McPherson (Stephen Shugerman/Getty Images)

Stephen McPherson (Stephen Shugerman/Getty Images)

Is an abrasive personality enough to get a top TV exec fired? You might think so, judging from all the coverage today of ABC Entertainment President Stephen McPherson’s “resignation.”

In the absence of concrete details, the press has been left to surmise that it was McPherson’s manners (or the lack thereof) that led to his being forced out of his job as head of ABC programming.

“McPherson is famously abrasive and is universally regarded as one of the most disagreeable executives in Hollywood,” reported The Daily Beast. “[He was] known for expletive-laced outbursts and an inability to take criticism.”

ABC President Stephen McPherson Resigns

Well, he certainly sounds like an unpleasant fellow to work with, but expletive-laced outbursts and an inability to take criticism are hardly unique traits among top TV execs.

“He just doesn’t play well with others,” the Hollywood Reporter quotes an industry “insider” as saying.

According to Variety, “mood swings” were to blame. “One [unnamed agent] noted that McPherson’s ‘mood swings’ had increased during the past year, complicating business at ABC,” the trade reported. Yes, mood swings.

“Already, one outside observer sums it up thusly: ‘[Disney TV honcho] Anne Sweeney finally got her way’,” related New York mag’s Vulture blog.

Maybe Sweeney did engineer McPherson’s ouster. And maybe she really did dislike McPherson personally.

Still, it’s always more useful in these situations to “follow the money,” as the source known as Deep Throat said in ‘All the President’s Men.’ Abrasiveness alone rarely leads to high-powered TV execs losing their jobs. Heck, it’s a rare TV executive who isn’t abrasive, at least sometimes. When execs are successful, their abrasiveness is easily forgiven.

Is ABC Family’s Boss the Right Guy to Run ABC?

The real reason McPherson lost his job was his track record – too many flops and too few hits, something most of the stories are also pointing out. It’s an old story really: The head of programming spent too much of the company’s money on too many series that didn’t go anywhere. Either the shows weren’t well-received in their premieres on ABC (after costing millions to produce) or they later failed to live up to expectations (translation: revenue) when they were sold in syndication.

“They [at ABC] spend money like drunken sailors,” said an unnamed source in the Hollywood Reporter story. “For what they’re spending, you’d expect bigger results.”

The stories largely blame McPherson for the failures of such high-profile shows as ‘Life On Mars,’ ‘FlashForward,’ ‘Eastwick,’ ‘Invasion,’ ‘Pushing Daisies,’ ‘Hank’ (last season’s Kelsey Grammer sitcom) and a bunch of others. The stories deny him credit for ABC hits such as ‘Grey’s Anatomy,’ ‘Lost,’ ‘Dancing With the Stars’ and ‘Desperate Housewives’ because they were developed by others before he came aboard.

Though the stories do give him credit for last season’s Wednesday comedy lineup – ‘Modern Family,’ ‘The Middle’ and ‘Cougar Town’ – the comedies were apparently not enough to sway the opinion of the higher-ups at Disney that the lion’s share of what McPherson had pushed on them over his six years in office did not work. Ratings and revenue are down. And, as we reported the other day, the median age of ABC’s audience is rising fast – it’s now near 50.

Deadline.com pointed out on Wednesday that McPherson lost his job on the same date former NBC honcho Ben Silverman lost his a year ago – June 27 – just as the annual summer TV press tour was getting underway in Los Angeles and reporters from around the country were converging, then as now, to hear the network’s top execs and stars tout the new fall shows.

McPherson’s exit now gives the reporters and network execs something to talk about besides the new fare. Of course, McPherson won’t be there to talk about the ABC lineup he developed, but like the U.S. presidency, the changing of network presidents usually proceeds peacefully and the new guy, Paul Lee of ABC Family, has already taken McPherson’s place.

But the question remains: With ABC’s fall schedule now in place and the new shows set to begin production any minute, does it really matter whether Steve McPherson is there or not? And when you read about chaos and tumult in the executive suites at various networks, does it have any bearing at all on what you choose to watch?