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Patrick Goldstein and James Rainey
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Steve McPherson's ouster at ABC: What's the story behind the story?

July 29, 2010 | 11:43 am

Steve_mcpherson I have to admit that while I don't usually follow the ups and downs of TV executives, I've been riveted by the coverage of ABC Entertainment president Steve McPherson's abrupt departure from the network, especially now that it appears that his resignation may have been prompted by an internal sexual harassment investigation. The whole affair offers a fascinating of our new media world in action as the news cycles and news judgment calls all occur at dizzying speed.

At first, the story looked all too familiar. Showbiz exec steps down after repeated clashes with his bosses, which is how the Day One dispatches played it, complete with juicy insider tidbits such as that McPherson had endured a "testy relationship" with his boss, Anne Sweeney, prompting tales of dysfunction and management strife. With McPherson unable to deliver any huge new hits to replace shows like "Lost" and "Desperate Housewives," it looked like top management was eager to make a change. That seemed even more likely when news also surfaced that McPherson — as my intrepid colleagues Dawn Chmielewski and Meg James reported — was known for his "volatile temper and expletive-laced e-mails [which] won him few fans within family-friendly Disney." 

Before you knew it, the New York Times was reporting that ABC had reacted to a "delicate personal matter" involving McPherson. That's when Kim Masters at the Hollywood Reporter entered the fray with the real shocker: McPherson had resigned as ABC "conducted an internal sexual harassment investigation of the executive." Masters went on to quote the source as saying that "multiple harassment complaints" had been made involving incidents with several women, including some executives and on-air talent. Masters had only one anonymous source to bolster the story, which wouldn't be enough to get such an explosive charge posted at my newspaper or the New York Times.

But the new Janice Min-run Hollywood Reporter, which recently hired Masters to generate exactly these type of splashy exclusives, is clearly willing to push the envelope when it comes to anonymous sourcing in a bid to carve out a new niche for itself in the media landscape. It certainly serves notice to Variety that it's going to get beat like a drum if it continues its timid, controversy-averse style of cushy showbiz reportage. While the spit was hitting the fan at ABC, the big story on Variety's On The Air TV blog this morning was a softball feature about Laura Linney's new Showtime comedy, headlined "If its Linney, 'C' is for classy."

Meanwhile, Masters' scoop has been picked up everywhere in the blogosphere. It's possible that many Old Media outlets would have shied away from linking to the story, except that McPherson's new showbiz publicist issued an almost comically weak defense (or nondefense) of the executive, claiming that "it is not uncommon for high level executives to be the subject of gossip and innuendo. That would include rumors of internal situations which can easily be misinterpreted or misrepresented."

I guess McPherson's PR guy was hoping to spin TV reporters into doing "Where Are They Now?" profiles of ex-NBC programming chief Ben Silverman, who spent most of his tenure surrounded by oh-so-much gossip and innuendo. But as a defense of McPherson, it didn't hold much water, especially since ABC wasn't denying any allegations of inappropriate conduct. So I think we can expect this story to have legs, as they say, even if the new media-fueled story behind the story may turn out to be the most intriguing one of all.

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Photo: Steve McPherson at the 2009 Winter Press Tour talking up new ABC TV shows.

Credit: Adam Larkey / ABC.