Thursday, July 29, 2010

Steve McPherson out at ABC -- what it me

With the announcement Tuesday that Steve McPherson would be stepping down as head of the ABC Entertainment Group I got a few emails from friends asking how this would affect me? To answer, I’d have to go back through my history with ABC.

The last time David and I sold a pilot to the alphabet network it was 1981. We’ve done two pilots for ABC. Neither was shot. One was a family comedy. They were also developing a family comedy that year for Erma Bombeck. We were told they were greenlighting hers, not ours because they had a deal with her. “But if it’s any consolation,” they said, “Yours was much better.” Yeah, GREAT consolation.

We also rewrote a pilot for ABC that did get made but we didn’t get screen credit. And the pilot was never picked up. That was in 1979.

Interestingly, throughout our very lengthy (and lucky) career we’ve done very little for ABC. Our first staff job was on THE TONY RANDALL SHOW for ABC but we left to go to MASH, we’ve written episodes for a few short-lived series, and I’ve directed a number of shows for ABC including DHARMA & GREG. It’s just that the long running series we were involved with seemed to be on every network but ABC.

And yet, you’d think in almost thirty years we could have sold one goddamn pilot there. We used to joke that we couldn’t sell the Super Bowl to ABC.

In fairness, ABC has always been lovely. We certainly can’t blame one or two individuals and say it was anything personal. We must’ve pitched to 200 different regimes. Two of the buildings that we pitched in have now been torn down. Some of the executives we pitched to are dead, or worse -- out of the business.

But ABC has always been receptive to us bringing in ideas. The meetings are always respectful and I always get the impression they will buy an idea if they like it. But it’s us. We just never bring them anything they seem to like. I’d say at least 50% of the pilots we sold elsewhere were originally passed on by ABC. We started going there first because we felt it was like a practice pitch. They’d never buy of course (we could pitch DESPERATE HOUSEWIVES) but at least we got to give our presentation a test spin.

Here’s how not-in-the-cards it was for us. When ALMOST PERFECT premiered we got a extremely nice call from the then-head of ABC saying how much he loved the show and wondered why we didn’t bring it to them. I told him we did plan to go to ABC first but they called the day before and wanted to postpone the meeting for three weeks. So we took it to CBS the next day and sold it in the room. It just wasn’t meant to be.

Meanwhile, we helped out on other peoples’ ABC pilots. Quite a few of those. Although, come to think of it, very few of those ever got picked up. I’m telling you, it’s US.

But that’s just for writing, directing, and producing. In terms of ACTING, ABC is our home. David and I have had cameos in two episodes of shows we wrote – OPEN ALL NIGHT and THE MARSHALL CHRONICLES and both of those series were on ABC. We can’t sell a show but we are the face of the network. That’s more consolation than the Erma Bombeck incident.

Anyway, back to the original question – will Steve McPherson’s exit have much of an effect on me, I say no. Paul Lee has been named to succeed him, not my dad. And even if my dad were named President of the ABC Group, he’d still say he liked our idea but already bought something similar from my brother.

That said, I'm sure Paul will do a great job. My best to him and everyone at ABC.


Mary Stella said...

Ken, this question for Friday might be naive, but is there significant ageism in the writing part of television? Do the jobs now go more to the 20 and 30-something year olds over writers in their 40s, 50s, etc. or is it all show-specific?

Brian said...

I can answer that question for you, Mary Stella:

If you ask any scriptwriter over the age of 50 if "ageism" exists in Hollywood, you'll get a definitive "yes".

If you ask any scriptwriter UNDER the age of 50 if "ageism" exists in Hollywood, you'll get a definitive "yes".

So it all depends on who you ask.

(age 34)

YEKIMI said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Ref said...

Don't want to burn any bridges, huh Ken?

Ted said...

How about giving us the Levine @ Isaacs version of "Failure Playhouse" - descriptions of some of the best of your sold (and unsold) pilots? I for one would love it.

David Schwartz said...

It seems to me that what makes a good show become a great show is that the storylines make you feel for the characters and there is importance to their actions. One of the things that turns me off about most sitcoms is that there never seems to be anything of substance taking place. Most stories revolve around inconsequential things that don't really affect the characters in a real way, so don't affect the viewers as well. Each story is just a vehicle around which things will remain status quo until next week.
What I loved about the first season of Cheers, which I agree with Ken was one of the best seasons of any show ever, was that things happened that got the audience involved. Diane and Sam's relationship evolved. The stories were about issues that were real and mattered. I remember one storyline about the coach's daughter where she was about to "settle" for a real jerk. It was important for the Coach to talk his daughter out of marrying the wrong guy for her. We felt for her. We felt for him. Too many shows don't ever put something into the storyline that you actually care about. That's what I love so much about M*A*S*H and that first season of Cheers. You really cared. And you cared because the stories had weight. They were important to the characters in a real way, so they were important to us.
Word verification: dinte: A minor dent.

JKessler said...

Steve McPherson got canned-- oops, I mean "he resigned"-- because the shows he developed in house and championed were for the most part duds: Eastwick, Hank, FlashForward, etc. The only hit, Modern Family, was made by Fox, so he can't take credit for it. My question is, what now happens to the shows that McPherson championed that have not yet been canceled (for example, The Middle), that do not have stellar ratings? Do you think the new exec is going to be on a tear to replace those shows with better performers ASAP? How do these things usually play out when there are leftovers on the schedule after a regime change?

Buttermilk Sky said...

Friday question: A friend and I were listing some of the phrases SEINFELD has added to the language (low talker, re-gift, sponge-worthy, master of my domain, etc.). Has a phrase or expression of yours ever gotten wide circulation, and if so, how did you feel about it?

emily said...

Steve McPherson's departure story just got more interesting...