McPherson: 'Lost' on track, ready for marathon

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PASADENA -- ABC Entertainment president Stephen McPherson insisted that despite claims that the megahit "Lost" had lost its way creatively during the kickoff of its third season this past fall, he believes the show is in fine shape, thank you very much.

"You know, I liked it. I think that (executive producers) Damon (Lindelof) and Carlton (Cuse) made a clear choice that that first installment would be really about the experience of Jack and Kate and Sawyer and the Others," McPherson said Sunday during the Television Critics Assn. winter press tour at the Ritz-Carlton Huntington Hotel. "I thought it was really a riveting six episodes, and the production values, I think they exceeded even their own standards. But I like it when they're all together, and I think we're headed toward that when you come back after (the hiatus)."

Indeed, some have criticized the decision to launch "Lost" in the fall for seven weeks and then give it a four-month rest. (It returns to ABC's schedule next month.) In hindsight, McPherson admits this might have been something of a mistake and next year looks to go the route Fox does with "24," running all 20-something episodes consecutively with no repeats.

"I even said last fall, ideally the way you would do 'Lost' is 22 straight (episodes), 23 straight, as many as we had done," said McPherson, appearing more relaxed and jovial than during similar sessions in recent years. "I think for us, given where we were in our development, we really needed to (launch it) in the fall ... I think coming into next fall there's a good chance we would run it 22 straight either in the fall or in the spring."

During a later session devoted to "Lost," Cuse hinted that they are feeling a need to establish a precise end-date for the Emmy-winning thriller, if only to satisfy fans and to help the producers plot out the final story arcs of the marooned plane-crash survivors.

"I think once we do that, a lot of the anxiety and a lot of these questions like, 'We're not getting answers,' a lot of those will go away," Cuse said. "I think there's an underlying anxiety that this is not going to end well or that we don't know what we're doing. J.K. Rowling has announced there's going to be seven 'Harry Potter' books, and it gives everybody a sort of feeling of certainty that that story is driving toward a conclusion. It's time for us now to find an end point for this show. It's always been discussed that the show would have a beginning, middle and end. I think once we figure out exactly when that is going to be, I think a lot of these concerns will go away."

The success of "Lost" in its 2004 debut led the way for a parade of heavily serialized dramas. Like clockwork, the major networks dived head-first into serial territory this past season -- but with few successes. McPherson conceded that ABC had trouble launching two new cliffhanger-driven shows this fall, "The Nine" and "Daybreak," but that doesn't mean he has any regrets.

"The shows were incredibly well-produced," he said. "We loved the shows creatively ... It may have just been the timing." The programming guru added that both "Nine" and the poorly-rated freshman drama "Six Degrees" still have a chance to return to the schedule this spring despite being pulled. "Degrees," in fact, is in production to finish out its original 13-episode order.

In the main, McPherson stressed that things are pretty good in ABC-ville. The ballyhooed move of "Grey's Anatomy" to Thursdays opposite "CSI: Crime Scene Investigation" this season has worked out well, with "Grey's" regularly beating "CSI" in the coveted adults 18-49 column. "And we have two of the top three new shows in 'Ugly Betty' and 'Brothers & Sisters,'" he noted. "We're up in total viewers on Monday night without 'Monday Night Football.' We're the No. 1 network in 18-49."

That said, many of ABC's rookie series have struggled to find their footing. That includes the comedy "The Knights of Prosperity," a half-hour built around the antics of an oddball group of New Yorkers who set their sights on robbing Mick Jagger. But McPherson maintains he is committed to comedy.

"The great thing is that people are taking chances," he said. "I mean, for us, taking chances is what redefined us ... We hope we can get a bigger audience for (comedies). But I also don't think that the sitcom is dead. I don't think I could point to a great multicamera show that has been put on the air, marketed well and failed. So it's frustrating. It's challenging. We definitely want bigger audiences for them. I believe that comedy is due to kind of explode."

McPherson gamely fielded a number of other conversation threads during a Q&A that ranged from his opinion of the controversial "The Path to 9/11" -- which he said the network "love(d)" and stood by despite accusations that some facts were distorted to make the Clinton administration look bad -- to the state of TV movies on broadcast TV. McPherson noted that ABC is likely to go the entire season without a made-for ("Path to 9/11" aired on the fifth anniversary of the terrorist attacks and outside the regular season). But he said he still believed there were "select opportunities" for longform programming on the network.

McPherson's sole news bulletin for those who turned out for his early-morning session was that "Dancing With the Stars" will return to ABC with a pair of two-hour editions on March 19 and 26.
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