ABC: Is This a Critic Proof Network? (Analysis)
A broadcaster, with emphasis on broad.
Speaking only about programming, ABC clashes like plaid on plaid with television critics, who were just assembled for the Television Critics Association, which ABC closed out on today. In this show-us-your-wares event, you got the faint whiff of "Oh God, don't show us those again, we've seen the screeners." Mostly that's because new entertainment president Paul Lee came in at a time when ABC badly needed to find some hits to keep pace with CBS and Fox. Certainly the network was not decimated in the same way that NBC was, but something short of a wholesale revolution was at hand. And the slate of shows that Lee offered up seemed to particularly annoy the assembled masses, because most of it is "big tent" broadness that most critics don't go in for, plus some of it is heinously bad and the good parts -- yes there are some good parts -- were thus obscured.
This shotgun approach, with a good number of series seeming broad and the sitcom Work It being, well, spectacuarly awful and ill-advised, plus the why-even-botherness of Charlie's Angels, seemed to set the room on edge. But here's the thing about Lee, who launched BBC America in this country (he's no stranger to quality) and then turned ABC Family from nothing into something very important in the tween world, a programming and branding success that can't be underscored enough: He's not afraid to say he likes entertaining shows that have more than the patina of cheese on them. Translation: He's perfectly willing to give Americans something they want to digest easily even if the critical community is going to gag on it. So the guy knows his audience -- and the historical nature of the ABC brand -- and he's going to put an arrow right in the middle of that target.
Popular in this room? Not really. But there's something to say about knowing what's going to work for the job you've been hired to do. So when reporters asked Lee in ABC's executive session at the critic's press tour, whether his shows were not particularly dialed into reality, he said this:
"I think it’s our job to create television that questions how people feel in the world. So we didn’t sit down and go, 'Oh, there are the employment figures. Let’s build some shows.' We found three shows that made us cackle with laughter, and we put them on."
It's pretty safe to say that ABC's offerings are a real mixed bag and that many of the critics (yes, me included) were looking (dreaming?) not just for an explanation of but apology for shows like Work It, Man Up, Last Man Standing and Charlie's Angels at the very least. But the affable Lee was also unflappable and unapologetic, even after one critic -- in regard to Work It, about guys who cross-dress to get work -- said, "Seriously? Come on, Paul." (It wasn't me, though I take some pride in Lee thinking it was definitely going to be me). His response:
"You know, when you pick up pilots, there are many reasons that you decide: 'Why am I going to pick this up?' You think, 'Who is the showrunner? What’s the slot going to be? Where’s this going to go? Does it fit my brand?' And sometimes you pick up a pilot because it makes you cackle with laughter. So I make absolutely no excuses for that show. It makes me cackle with laughter, and I think it’s going to get noticed. We didn’t think this room would like it, and there’s some pleasure in that."
Critics might not like a lot of what ABC is doing, but what's not to like about that answer?
Looking beyond TCA and taking an optimistic approach, Lee and ABC certainly have series that could work and also be good (as opposed to, say, being hits that kill a critic's soul): Lee is very high on the midseason series, The River, a drama about a wildlife expert and TV personality who goes missing in the Amazon and what happens when he's presumed dead but isn't. Fall sitcom Suburgatory -- single father moves daughter from New York City to the suburbs -- is both funny and filled with potential. So is, to varying degrees, midseason comedy Apartment 23, though early indications are it's a bit polarizing with critics. Fairy tale alterna-world drama Once Upon A Time could break out in the fall, as could Revenge, a fantasy surrounding a girl who returns to the Hamptons where her family was ruined and starts taking people out, one by one. Plus the glossy era-obsessed Pan Am could easily grow some wings in the fall as well.
There's nothing to be overtly embarrassed about there, even if the best parts of that slate aren't going to get the fawning that cable series might (this is true of all networks, by the way). What's happened to ABC is that its worst developed shows are so patently bad and unlikable that they have brought down upon Lee and ABC a kind of force majeur of critical annoyance that ends up being broadly dismissive. And probably not fair to the above mentioned shows that could quite easily work.
But here's what I like about Lee. He loves television. Based on his work at BBC America alone, he doesn't have to tout his understanding and appreciation of high quality. But as a Brit, he absorbed a lot of bad but popular American television growing up and absolutely loved it. He likes broad comedy. As a programmer, he see value in work that will appeal to the masses even when it has almost no chance to appeal to critics. He's a guy who isn't going to apologize for swimming in both ends of the pool. He's just going to tell you that he loves being in the pool.
Some have suggested there's a chance that ABC, based on its fall schedule, might do the in-far-worse-shape NBC a great favor by slipping so badly that the Peacock will get out of 4th place. I think that notion might vastly underestimate ABC's current strengths and Lee's programming acumen. But who knows? Answer: Nobody knows. But Lee is smart on a lot of levels, even if critics are going to question his taste. I'm still going to hate Work It from start to hopefully-fast-finish, but I'm also a firm believer that the audience always decides. And in this country, over-estimating that audience has proven to be critical madness.