October 11, 2007

Cornell Connection: Steve McPherson '86

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Did you know that pretty much everything you’ve been watching on TV lately has had the giant (Big Red — Yeah, I went there) stamp of approval by one Cornell graduate? You sorority girls that jabber on and on about Meredith and whether she will get it on with McDreamy or how she needs to be fed a cookie, Steve McPherson was on top of Grey’s. You squirrelly enginerds who divert yourselves in Carpenter Library by calculating the velocity of the plane as it relates to the hypermagnetic pull of the island in Lost, Steve McPherson was thinking of you when he greenlighted that show. All human ecology majors, Steve McPherson had you in mind when he aired Desperate Housewives. As the start of premiere season was getting underway, The Sun talked to Steve McPherson ‘86, ABC Entertainment President and the guy credited for bringing the network back straggling in ratings to having the greatest season-to-season surge in viewership of young adults (a.k.a. YOU) of the main networks in the last quarter-century. Here is an excerpt of that conversation:

The Sun: I hear you’re a Cornell Soccer alum.
Steve McPherson: Yeah, absolutely. I think I still hold the record for the most points in a game.
Sun: Do you really? How many is it?
S.M.: I think I had like one or two goals and four assists or something. You’d have to check it.
Sun: How was the soccer team when you were on it?
S.M.: We were very good my senior year. We lost to Columbia, which would have decided the Ivy title, but we were okay. We were good my freshman year, not great my sophomore, decent junior, and we were the best in my senior year.
Sun: What position did you play?
S.M.: I played mostly center forward. I think I played some right wing my freshman year.
Sun: Did being on the team help you in any way after college?
S.M.: I think competitive team sports help you a tremendous amount. Just the camaraderie and the teamwork and the kind of involvement in those relationships is wonderful. To be honest, the coach that I had at Cornell was god-awful, and I think that’s since been changed since I was there. I think that was really one of the biggest drawbacks of my experiences there, in terms of soccer experience. [Laughs] The guy I’m proud of is Sarachan. Dave Sarachan was the assistant coach when I was there for a couple years, and he went on to be the assistant coach of the national team.
Sun: Are you following the team at all now?
S.M.: I do, and it’s actually the only thing I give money to at Cornell. And it’s a bummer. I mean, I keep checking his emails, and we keep losing so it’s hard. I mean, I would love to be helpful in making the team really strong. It seems like they got off to a decent start this year. They stumbled a little bit, but its certainly better than the past few years.
Sun: What was it like at Cornell for you overall? What were your favorite aspects of Cornell, and what were your least favorite?
S.M.: I had a great experience at Cornell quite honestly. I thought it was wonderful. I was in a fraternity, and I think that was an amazing experience. I think sometimes fraternities get a bad name for whether its partying or drinking too much, but those are still some of my closest friends in the world. To have that 40 people that you had a connection to and the camaraderie with, it made my experience at Cornell that much richer and that much easier. In terms of the actual academics, interestingly enough, I was a political science — or I guess government we called it, right? — major, and I didn’t really enjoy that department, which I don’t think was the fault of the school. I think it was just I kind of defaulted to that major, and I got interested in theatre arts later in my Cornell stay, junior and senior year, and that was really rewarding. I had a great time pursuing that, and that was really the beginnings of what sent me out here to get into the entertainment business.
Sun: How did you end up at Cornell after having gone to high school in Paris?
S.M.: I had a very close friend named Will Fratt whose father was a big alumni, and he was in high school with me in Paris. So when I was looking at schools, it was one that I looked at and I just absolutely fell in love with it. He was a big supporter of me going there and that was really the track that got me.
Sun: Did anything that you learned in your government studies affect anything that you’re doing now or help you in any way at ABC?
S.M.: In a word: no. [Laughs]
Sun: [Laughs] Well I guess there’s that answer.
S.M.: I could lie, but that’s the reality.
Sun: What’s your fondest memory of Cornell, if you had to pick one?
S.M.: It would probably be after freshman year, which was really a great time, they used to have this huge party on the Slope. In those days, it was complete all bets are off. It was just whatever you wanted to do. They had great bands and people all went out there, and it was like the celebration of the end of the year. It was springtime and you had gone through the winter, and I remember just hanging out with my friends and realizing, “Wow, I made it through the year. I’m surrounded by some people that eight months ago I didn’t know at all and now are really close friends, and this is the beginning of a pretty great experience in my life, the beginning of four years that would be incredibly impactful.”
Sun: Do you think Slope Day was way different then than it is now?
S.M.: It was completely different. I actually have some pictures somebody sent me a while back from Cornell, and I had them on the computer. I was looking at them, and they had this thing called “Fun in the Sun” [Laughs] and it was—I don’t know if they still have it, but literally we drove trucks onto the quad and we were doing tightrope rides and [Laughs] there was no accounting for safety or, you know, appropriate behavior. It was complete anarchy, and it was so much fun.
Sun: I’m jealous; I wish that it was still like that! How did you go from Cornell graduate to Wall Street to ABC?
S.M.: Wall Street was pretty easy because it was the 80s and there was such a push and a chicness to Wall Street that I’d say 70% of the people I knew either worked on Wall Street or tried to get onto Wall Street so that was easy. But I think moving out here [Los Angeles]: I was dating a girl from Cornell and she broke my heart. I was on the East coast, hating my job on Wall Street and I’d been left high and dry by this relationship. I just felt like I had nothing to lose. Another friend of mine, Kevin Reilly, who’s a Cornellian and runs Fox now, he and I spoke. He was out here, and he said, “Come on out. You’re gonna do great.” I flew to Davis, California, with money in my pocket, bought a car with all my life’s possessions and that’s the start of it.
Sun: Had you ever been to California before that?
S.M.: I’d been there once before because my sister went to school up north, but really I didn’t know Los Angeles at all and nobody here. It was kind of an insane thing to do at the time.
Sun: Was Touchstone the first place that you worked?
S.M.: No, I started working for a company called Witt/Thomas/Harris [Productions], which did shows like Benson and Soap and Golden Girls and Empty Nest. Then I went to Fox, and then I went to ABC Productions, which doesn’t exist anymore because that was before Disney bought ABC, and then I went to NBC. From NBC, I went to Touchstone. And then from Touchstone, I became head of ABC.
Sun: What were your responsibilities while you were at Touchstone?
S.M.: I was running the studio, so developing all of the shows and producing them, dealing with all aspects of production and development and creating shows like C.S.I and Scrubs and Amazing Race and Monk and Desperate Housewives and Lost.
Sun: When you worked on CSI, did you ever work with Carol Mendelsohn and Naren Shankar, the show’s Cornellian producers?
S.M.: Yes! We actually hired Carol to work with Anthony Zuiker who created the show. Is she a Cornellian?
Sun. She is.
S.M.: I didn’t know that! We never put two and two together on that.
Sun: I’m glad I’m Cornell matchmaking. When you got your first job in L.A. up through Touchstone and ABC, what was the progression of what you did at each place?
S.M.: At Witt/Thomas/Harris, I was a P.A., a production assistant, and at Fox I was a manager of current programming. Then at ABC productions I was a director of drama development and then a vice-president of development of both comedy and drama. Then at NBC, I was a vice-president of development. At Touchstone, I was executive vice-president, then president of Touchstone, and then now president of ABC.
Sun: Is there a logical progression in each of those positions in what they do, or was it a zigzag in any way?
S.M.: There’s a logical progression in terms of executive responsibility, oversight, and what your skill set is, how it develops and the relationships you develop over time with agencies, other networks and production companies. You build yourself as an executive over time like you would in another industry as well.
Sun: And the projects that you worked on, what was your role in them. Were you working in the creative aspect or were you putting things together on the business side?
S.M.: It’s pretty creative mostly. Certainly you have oversight of the business as well, but it all starts with the creative. It all starts with the shows. You have to get that right and then you figure out how to make financial sense, but it really is all about the creative piece in terms of what’s important.
Sun: This is probably going to be a hard question to answer, but what’s one of your favorite projects that you’ve worked on over the years?
S.M.: Desperate Housewives is certainly something I’m incredibly fond of. Marc Cherry is a close friend of mine who wrote the script, and it’s such a great story in that he was really unemployed for two years, his agents embezzled money from him, he wrote this script on spec [written as a sample to show producers], and he sent it to me. And he’d been a comedy writer and we’d known each other almost 12 years earlier when I was a production assistant. He sent me the script and I liked it. It ended up becoming the biggest show in the country, and one of the biggest shows in the world.
Sun: Is there any one project that you’ve done that sort of has your mark on it most?
S.M.: I laugh about that because you look at ABC, and if you didn’t know if I was a man or woman and if you didn’t know what age I was, and you were just looking at the programming, you’re looking at Ugly Betty, Grey’s, Private Practice, Brothers & Sisters, Desperate Housewives, Home Makeover, Wife Swap, Supernanny, you’d probably go, “I betcha he’s a 34-year old woman!” I think in this job you get a tremendous amount of credit, and a tremendous amount of blame, and the reality is somewhere in between because there’s thousands and thousands of people who work on every show, and they all deserve credit for their part in it. So you end up being a figurehead in these jobs and you take the good with the bad, but I’m equally proud of all those shows and they’re all so different. I mean Lost is such a different show than Ugly Betty, which is such a different show from Grey’s Anatomy, so I wouldn’t say I have a specific signature. I’m just proud to have been a part of shows that I think have affected the television landscape. You take the list of C.S.I., Lost, Desperate, Grey’s, Brothers & Sisters, Ugly Betty, Amazing Race, Monk, Scrubs, My So-Called Life, Just Shoot Me, I’m really proud to have been a part of all of them and played whatever part I did.
Sun: Is it kind of odd for you to be representing ABC right now, but to have worked on so many shows that are on competing networks?
S.M.: Yeah, but it’s a little bit part of the business. People tend to be moving around in this business quite a lot, and you end up competing against yourself to some extent. I think it’s a little hard sometimes when you’re trying to figure out who to root for, because you have friends on shows that you’re competing against so you’re rooting for them, and then quietly you’re thinking, “Well, I hope they don’t do too well!” [Laughs] But it is kind of the nature of the business.
Sun: Since you mentioned Lost before, Lost is one of the first of its kind, at least for my generation, in the way that it’s serialized and you really don’t know anything until the writers decide to tell you. Were you ever hesitant about that format for it, or did you have no doubts about a show like Lost?
S.M.: I think you have anxiety just putting any show on, whether it’s Grey’s Anatomy or Lost. But I do think that the world of media right now is so crowded that you have to take chances. Damon Lindelof, who is really largely responsible for that show, took an amazing chance in doing what he’s done and I definitely didn’t hesitate to take the chance. That’s where you make great gains and that’s where I’ve been able to succeed. It’s the shows that I’ve taken a chance on and pushed the boundaries of the creative template that have benefited me and been amazing to work for.
Sun: After Lost’s success, there have been so many other serialized dramas to come out, but few of them have had as much success as Lost. Do you have any idea what makes that one show so special?
S.M.: I think that people get caught up in the high-concept nature of it, and they miss the fact that the character work on that show is so strong. TV is different than features as a medium where you’re welcoming people into your home each week and when they came up with the storytelling technique to flash back into these characters’ lives, I think it was pretty amazing. That was what was really revolutionary. It was a new kind of storytelling. I think that’s what just made people fall in love with Jack and Kate and Sawyer and so I think that is really their secret. That’s what it is. But it’s also just one of the most compelling TV shows I’ve ever seen, and that’s just all about writing, acting, and directing.
Sun: How do you feel about the network’s decision to air entire episodes of your primetime programming on the website, and how do you think that’s affected the way people watch TV?
S.M.: I think people are changing the way they watch TV. They’re personalizing it. I think at this point, it’s additive. I don’t think it’s cannibalizing what we do on our air, on the broadcast air. But I think over time we’re going to see whether or not these different platforms — iPod, iTunes, DVRs, DVDs — what works and what doesn’t, what’s a real revenues thing and what isn’t, how viewing patterns change and how they stay the same. It’s really a very interesting time as technology has created all these different opportunities.
Sun: If I’m not mistaken, I think that the ABC timeline of success in recent years coincides at least in part with your becoming president of entertainment, so what kind of stuff was happening behind the scenes that made you guys have a resurgence in viewership from before?
S.M.: I have an amazing team that works with me. We took a lot of chances putting shows like Desperate on the air, and that really has been our signature. We also transformed the way we marketed our shows, which I think made some huge strides for the network. So it’s been a great ride because to see shows like Desperate work and then to see shows like Dancing with the Stars, which couldn’t be two more different shows, is so wonderful. You realize that TV more than features reaches so many millions of people. I think that’s what’s so attractive to me about working in TV, the effect and the reach that you have on the world that we’re all in is pretty amazing.
Sun: How did you know the adaptation of Ugly Betty from Colombia would work in the U.S. market?
S.M.: Again, you can never tell, but I think it was an amazing idea. Salma Hayek, actually, was so incredible in producing that show and was such a huge fan of America Ferrara and absolutely willed her to have that part. So my hat’s off to her; she’s done an amazing job and helped to really transform that. Silvio Horta, who created and wrote the show and did the adaptation, also deserves a giant, giant amount of credit for adapting it and making it. It’s kind of a universal story, an ugly duckling, an underdog. I think America certainly embraces that — America the country not America Ferrara — that’s what’s universal in appeal about it. And I think it’s just special in the way its produced and directed and written, and that gives it an edge up on everything else.
Sun: When you first heard about Grey’s Anatomy, how did it seem different to you than any of the other tons of medical shows that have been on TV recently, like E.R. (forever) and Scrubs? How did Grey’s Anatomy become such a phenomenon in a TV market that’s saturated with medical dramas and dramedies?
S.M.: I think it’s a show first and foremost about character and secondarily about medicine. I think Shonda Rhimes who writes that show is one of the greatest voices that is working in TV today. She writes with an honesty and humor that is very rare and she cast that show unbelievably well. It’s a multicultural cast, and if you go into any hospital today, that’s what you see. I think all the credit goes to her for creating a world that people fall in love with and wanna laugh at, wanna cry with, wanna be compelled by. That’s the magic of TV, and sometimes you’re able to achieve it and sometime’s you’re not. She really did.
Sun: Since the majority, with the exception of Dancing with the Stars, of ABC’s newest hit programs are now scripted dramas or dramedies, what do you think of reality TV’s proliferation in the last ten years? Do you think that’s stagnated on network television, or do you think it’ll have a resurgence?
S.M.: Well, I think there’s an awful lot of it and I think that the great ideas — the Home Makeovers, the American Idols, the Survivors, the Dancing with the Stars’ — those I think are always going to be a part of the landscape, those kind of shows. I think that when you start to get Are You My Mommy and these kind of rip-offs and derivative shows, those I think really hurt the medium and so I think that’s where they seem to have stalled a little bit.
Sun: Since it’s pilot and season premiere time right about now, how do you feel as ABC Entertainment President to not have Lost on the docket right now, to have to wait until February to see it again?
S.M.: [Laughs] I wish we could produce 50 episodes a year! But we can’t so it’s good to know that we’ve got something really great in our back pocket. I’ve seen the first two scripts and they’re incredibly strong. And just like Fox has Idol that comes on after January, we’ve got Lost ready to go, so it’s good to have that strength in our back pocket. Certainly you’d like to have it year-round, but I think it’s best to air Lost back-to-back with no repeats and all originals.
Sun: What’s been the hardest sell to get on the air of all the shows that you’ve worked on or had pitched to you?
S.M.: C.S.I. was tough. We tried to get it on ABC; it didn’t get on ABC. It got on CBS, and then Disney gave it up. Scrubs also had a two-and-a-half year development period, and Monk. A lot of shows sometimes it takes a while to get people excited, and sometimes to get it right. So you’ve just got to persevere on the stuff that you believe in.
Sun: What’s your daily schedule like as ABC Entertainment President?
S.M.: It depends on the day. It depends on the time of year, too, whether it’s pilot season, pitch season, or marketing time. It’s a lot of creative meetings, a lot of phone calls, a lot of emails, a lot of screenings, a lot of casting sessions. It really is a very varied and exciting job.
Sun: What’s your favorite time of the year in your job?
S.M: June when it’s vacation time.
Sun: [Laughs] Fair enough.
S.M.: [Laughs] I have two baby girls so being able to spend a little bit more time with them in the summer is actually really nice.
Sun: Were there any Cornell professors, or maybe coaches, that guided you in any way after college or during college?
S.M.: I wish I could say yes. I really didn’t have that in a coach, certainly, and I didn’t connect with my studies in that way, so no. It really has been the friendships that I made at the fraternity that really have helped me because that support system is pretty amazing over time. We’ve had everything from guys dying in 9/11 to people getting sick to great success stories and happiness, so it’s pretty amazing. At your time up at Cornell, you think four years is a really long time, but I’ve been in L.A. now 20 years and I still have a lot of those friends. To have those friends has been incredibly important and really meaningful.
Sun: Is there anything that you’ve done in any of your ventures that was influenced by Cornell in any way? Or any references to Cornell?
S.M.: I’m always proud of Cornell and I always think about it. I don’t know that it pushed me one way or the other to do certain things but it certainly is always something that I’ll be fond of. It was a fond memory and an education and a time to mature as a man. I think that’s a lot of what college is. We talk about studies and grade point average and the reality is I think it’s a time to learn, to make mistakes, to grow, to bond, to froge some friendships that’ll last a lifetime. I think that’s just as important as all the other things that seem to be focused on academically.
Sun: You mentioned Kevin Reilly and Carol Mendelsohn, so do you meet a lot of Cornellians in the business?
S.M.: The two that I know really well and that are close friends are Kevin Reilly and Emile Levisetti. Emile is a producer and Kevin is at Fox. You hear about other people: John Dolgen is a big executive in the movie business and I know he’s a Cornellian although I’m not close to him. Those are the people that I really know in the business from Cornell.
Sun: What was your favorite TV show while you were at Cornell?
S.M.: It’s so funny: we used to stay in Friday nights, watch Miami Vice, and then go out.
Sun: [Laughs]
S.M.: How cheesy is that?
Sun: Would it inspire you?
S.M.: I think we had a party where we all dressed like Don Johnson.
Sun: [Laughs harder]
S.M.: Yeah. [Laughs] All the moments from Cornell can’t be proud ones.
Sun: What’s your favorite show on ABC right now?
S.M.: I can’t pick one of my babies! That’s like asking me which daughter is my favorite. My favorite show of all time is M.A.S.H.
Sun: Have you had any crazy or really funny experiences in your line of work?
S.M.: This is a wonderful business. I sat down last night for two-and-a-half hours and had an unbelievably bottle of wine with Oprah Winfrey. To be able to spend that time with her and consider her a friend, that’s a pretty amazing experience. I feel really fortunate to be in this business and to have those kind of things happen in my life.

In Ithaca, ABC is channel 9. Tune in to watch the some of the best and most popular shows on the tube, like Desperate Housewives, Ugly Betty, Grey’s Anatomy, and when it returns in February, Lost. Also, check them out in their entirety for free at abc.com when you’re not listening in your lectures.