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Paul Lee's 'Map' to the Stars

Entertainment president is the right media player for ABC.

Paul Lee
© Disney

The first thing I was hoping ABC entertainment president Paul Lee would do when he got the job in July was to outlaw the use of ABC Medianet, the balky and annoying online video player that was apparently created to save Disney two or three pennies while also driving critics insane.

ABC is the only broadcast or cable channel that doesn’t send out DVD screeners. Of course, this makes no sense unless you consider the aforementioned pennies, but when Lee took over for a rapidly ousted Steve McPherson prior to the 2010 Television Critics Association press tour, ABC was touting a new and improved Medianet player to critics. Hearts sank. People sobbed. There was booing and hissing when Kevin Brockman, ABC’s executive vice president in charge of global communications, announced news of Medianet that didn’t somehow involve burning the system onstage.

I didn’t boo. But I did hiss. Several times.

It wasn’t just critics who complained. Producers did, too. There where whispers that Barry Sonnenfeld was none too pleased that Pushing Daisies, the sitcom with saturated colors and a luminous whimsy, had its magic partially erased on the small, cranky player. For a lot of critics, just getting the damned thing to work was more annoying – better to at least see something less brightly fantastical than nothing at all.

Which brings me back to Lee. I’m still hoping that sending screeners to critics will pop up on his to-do list, since I tried to watch Off the Map today (about nine different times) and couldn’t get it to work. Now listen – I have ears and eyes. I’ve heard other critics savage the new doctors-in-the-jungle drama from Shonda Rhimes. I’ve seen clips. I sat through the TCA session. But I’m not going to let that influence my own take. (OK, it certainly made me put it off as long as possible – and then more important TCA events made me put it off until the last possible moment. Then the Medianet player didn’t work.)

Of course, I was able to watch about 11 minutes on ABC’s commercial site and those minutes made me feel like the technology crap-out had done me a favor by eliminated the other 33 minutes. (But yes, I’ll watch the whole thing tonight because those 11 minutes didn’t kill me – they just bored me and made me laugh during moments not meant for humor.)

So, clearly Lee has bigger problems than satisfying television critics and writers by sending them DVD screeners like every other network and cable channel (oh, did I say that already?).

Lee has inherited a schedule that’s not his. He won’t officially be able to put his stamp on ABC until next fall. He can cancel shows, move them around, make small but important tweaks (pssssst: online player banishment), but that’s like trying to practice modern medicine in the jungle (d’oh!) -- it’s not ideal. Mostly he’ll have to wait to make his mark. Besides, like he acknowledged at a cocktail party for Off the Map, it doesn’t really matter if the shows currently on ABC were created by him. They’re his now.

What should his worries be?

Well, for starters, he needs to breathe some life into an aging schedule (wasn’t The Bachelor created in 1982?). ABC needs a fresh drama hit since Detroit 1-8-7 and No Ordinary Family – two series that had the potential to be hits have disappointed, and the mishandled V appears to be adrift. Earlier, The Whole Truth and My Generation were swiftly canceled. Friday night seems tired as a whole.

Elsewhere, comedy development needs to be addressed, a nearly forgotten topic after ABC created Modern Family, The Middle and Cougar Town (all unsurprisingly renewed). But Better With You is not funny and is never discussed among people with taste; we’ll have to see if Matthew Perry’s Mr. Sunshine becomes a ray of hope; Happy Endings won’t appear until mid-April (out of shame?).

On Monday, at the Death March With Cocktails, Lee talked about branding (something he can at least control and something that hints at his vision going forward). He called it “smart with heart.” (And of course I’m hoping the heart part means getting away from that stupid online player, which would be really smart.)

Said Lee: "The ABC brand, as I see it, really combines smart with heart, and that is a really unusual combination. So, you know, we don’t always live up to it. But at its very best, we really make culturally defining, smart, big tent, aspirational television, and that’s how I see this brand and this network going forward into the future.”

I’ve known Lee a long time now, going back to 1998 when he was CEO and founder of BBC America. He’s intelligent and intuitive when it comes to television, a man with real vision and a keen sense of what will work where he works.

That’s an important distinction, of course, between putting on what you like personally and creating a schedule with shows that will work for your core audience and brand.

When Lee took a job running ABC Family, I thought he’d not only gone, ahem, off the map, but completely insane. And yet his turnaround of that ill-defined channel is precisely what set him up to run ABC after it (or Disney or the TV Gods of Whimsy) ran McPherson (who I also liked) out of the job.

But in Lee, ABC has a real breakthrough leader. Although the network didn’t really do him any favors during its poorly thought-out TCA day,  Lee was far and away the best thing about it. At the cocktail party for that show I won’t mention again, Lee was open and available, amiable, insightful and honest, with some off-the-record frankness about what might be to come, content-wise (which was also true of McPherson in the early years, less so in the latter part of his tenure).

I hope for Lee’s sake that he can strike a good balance between catering to a big-tent audience (that’s where all the “heart” is, in those sappy shows from Rhimes), and something that’s truly "smart." If he can keep the comedy development crackling and improve upon a reality franchise as chillingly-awful as The Bachelor (but doesn’t involve ice or roller skates), then his meteoric rise will continue.

We’ll see next fall. And if there is a loving Mickey in the sky, we’ll see it on a DVD.

Email Tim Goodman at Tim.Goodman@THR.com