By Lisa de Moraes
Sunday, January 22, 2006
PASADENA, Calif. Jan. 21
In the Land of the Nobody Here But Us Chickens, other broadcast programming chiefs may be de-beaked, de-clawed battery hens, but ABC's programming chief, Steve McPherson, is strictly free-range.
McPherson dares to answer questions. Or at least he gives the illusion of answering them, which is the same thing.
Like when he was asked Saturday at Winter TV Press Tour 2006 why he canceled Heather Graham's sitcom "Emily's Reasons Why Not" after just one episode, but not John Stamos's "Jake in Progress," which did equally lousy ratings a couple weeks back.
"I have a crush on John Stamos," he responded. Other programming chiefs would have seen the trade paper headlines: ABC Programming Chief Acknowledges Tryst With Bad Sitcom Star, and balked at giving an answer like that.
Of course he then gave a serious answer. "Emily's Reasons Why Not" did not get "where it needed to be" creatively while "Jake in Progress" has grown, he said.
"You have to kind of measure your patience based on how you believe in the creative," he explained. "And . . . we felt like, unfortunately, ['Emily'] was not going to get better and we needed to make a quick change."
Couldn't you have known it was a dog from early testing? one critic wondered.
"Testing is a pretty dysfunctional tool," McPherson said, immediately winning our undying love.
"We all know 'Seinfeld' -- one of the worst-testing NBC pilots ever," he added, and he ought to know, being a former NBC suit. "Desperate Housewives" tested only okay, he said, and "no men said they would ever watch it."
McPherson even had a good answer to the "Whither goest the multi-camera laugh-tracked sitcom?" question.
"I think doing the traditional sitcom, where it's the same couch you've seen in every previous show, it's the same setup, that's a problem. . . . We kind of got away from point-of-view and voice. It would be just a situation that yes, technically was funny, but it wasn't an engine for a series. They weren't people and voices that you wanted to hear week after week."
McPherson's even brave enough to take on one of the Scary Sci-Fi People in the room. They're the critics in the audience at every press tour who demand to know why that "Buffy" spinoff never happened, why "Farscape" got canceled, where's the Spike flick, etc. And they always sound kind of angry.
"You're doing very well with 'Lost,' obviously, and you like 'Invasion,' even though it's not doing maybe quite as well as you'd hoped -- do you have any other science-fiction/fantasy genre project in development for the fall?" one of them asked in a way that seemed to suggest that if he knew what was good for him he would.
"Not really science fiction," McPherson said, in what was perhaps the bravest statement ever made at a press tour, adding recklessly, "I don't think 'Lost' is a science fiction show. I think that's the beauty of it. It's a show about humanity. Other than a few elements, science fiction isn't what drives that at all."
"Maybe science fiction is the wrong term," the critic responded ominously, they way Buffy used to get with a vampire when she'd had just about enough of his nonsense. "Shows with elements that are not quite found in real life. I mean, you don't normally have shadow monsters appearing to you."
"As I said, there are definitely elements of 'Lost' that are science fiction," McPherson responded steely. "We're developing high-concept shows. Shows in the vein of 'Lost,' in the vein of '24.' "
On dodging questions: McPherson was asked if he was happy with "Commander in Chief" creatively and if he thought it was strong in the political arena or the family arena.
The show's original creator, Rod Lurie, envisioned it as a show about the East Wing, in which the first family lives, rather than a "West Wing" kind of show. But he got dumped as "show runner" -- mostly, we're told, because the show was getting so far behind in its production schedule and the scripts weren't particularly good. Steven-with-a-V Bochco was brought in and has turned it into more of a show about the West Wing.
"I think Steven has taken it in the more political arena," McPherson said, sidestepping the question nicely, adding, "We're always pushing to make shows better and better. . . . We're really hoping that the creative will continue to evolve."
* * *
ABC News stands by its story on Corey Clark's claims he was shagged by "American Idol" judge Paula Abdul while he was a contestant on the show, even though Fox says its own investigation found that nothing Clark claimed could be substantiated, ABC News President David Westin told critics.
"I know the sourcing on the story. We vetted that very, very carefully. . . . We stand by our story," Westin said, adding that "saying it's unsubstantiated from their point of view because they don't necessarily know who our sources are is not the same as saying it's wrong, is it?"
It's always dicey answering a question with a question at a press tour, as Westin was about to find out:
"Well, yeah, I think it is," the critic responded.
"Right," Westin said. Then, realizing what the critic had actually replied, he added, "What? It is? No! No! They don't know what our sources were. We know who our sources were [but] we're not revealing them obviously because they're confidential sources, but I am absolutely confident."
Fox claims it tried to talk to ABC News or to get ABC News to reveal its sources, the critic said.
"We declined," Westin responded.
"Why?" Westin said, looking like an impeccably dressed man who has just entered a very bad dream sequence.
"Have you heard of the Valerie Plame story?" he said.
"In the end, wouldn't it substantiate your story?" the critic asked, adding that ABC News would not be revealing its sources "to anyone other than the people that are looking into it at Fox."
"One thing that's sacred for us is protecting our confidential sources," Westin said. "And protecting them doesn't mean just not disclosing them to the outside world. This would be disclosing to people who have a vested interest, for goodness sakes."
* * *
Speaking of bad dream sequences, Westin was onstage with the two new anchors of ABC's evening newscast, Elizabeth Vargas and Bob Woodruff, as well as its exec producer, Jon Banner.
While Westin insisted that pairing Vargas and Woodruff was very different than past pairings of Harry Reasoner and Barbara Walters, Dan Rather and Connie Chung, which had played so much like watching ugly divorces in progress. Still, there was a notable lack of chemistry between Vargas and Woodruff onstage -- definitely a tomayto-and-tomahto kind of relationship.
Even on the promo clip shown to critics of various scenes of each out in the field, Woodruff looked like he'd just stepped off the cover of GQ, while Vargas looked like she'd gone out to walk her dog and found herself in Iraq.
Up on the stage, Vargas prattled on merrily about how having anchors out in the field changes the way they cover a story. "I mean, when I was in Iraq for that week, I did sometimes three reports for each broadcast, and those reports were two, three, four minutes long. We covered the story of the elections in Iraq that week far differently having an anchor on the ground than we would have having a correspondent there," she said, oblivious to how bad that sounded.
Later she added, "I mean, we have fabulous correspondents, but I think it's a great thing to have your anchors be reporters too and be out in the field."
Still later, she added, "This is no slur on our incredibly talented and hardworking correspondents. The fact of the matter is when you have an anchor out there in the country, you're going to cover the story more. I'm anchoring the broadcast from there."
"And, while I'm thinking of it, let them eat cake," she added. (Okay, I made that last part up.)
Woodruff, seeing the vultures start to circle, finally jumped in:
"I know exactly what you're saying," he said of the anchors-correspondents issue, "and it's a worry that we've talked about, because I think sometimes if you do send an anchor into the field, you do have a tendency sometimes to overemphasize the story."
But, he assured critics, that was "under the old model," and "we don't have that necessity" now.
Apparently Elizabeth Vargas did not get that memo.