ABC Chief on Singing Shows, 'Fresh Off the Boat' Fallout and 'Reflecting America'

Paul Lee also addressed his philosophy toward notes and the future of 'Nashville' and 'Revenge' during his turn at TCA.
ABC/RICK ROWELL
Paul Lee

What a difference a year makes.

ABC Entertainment Group president Paul Lee trotted out at the Television Critics Association winter press tour Wednesday with a fall season worth bragging about. In his half-hour on the Pasadena stage, he fielded questions not about the network's many misfires and weak Nielsen standing — as he's had to during past tour stops — but rather on how ABC's big bet on diversity had paid off, with ABC rounding out the first half of the season the only network of the Big Four not to shed viewers in the coveted adults 18-49 demographic, and Shonda Rhimes' How to Get Away With Murder ranking as the No. 3 show on television behind only The Big Bang Theory and Modern Family.

But Lee used the platform to plug more than ABC's ratings turnaround, for which he noted he was "obviously very pleased." He touted the strength of ABC's brand, which his internal research suggests is "way ahead of the pack, not just our competitors but also of the HBOs and Showtimes," as well as the growing power of ABC TV Studios, which is currently responsible for producing "five or six" of the top 10 dramas. Also garnering significant airtime: ABC's decision to reflect the melting pot that is America with a freshman slate that includes Murder, Black-ish, Cristela and newcomers American Crime and Fresh Off the Boat.

"I really believed from the beginning that the demographic changes in America were just as important to our evolution as the technological changes," Lee said, adding: "And that notion that we were there to reflect America was tremendously important to ABC."

Here are the highlights from his half-hour before the press:

All About Diversity

"I think it's our job to reflect America," said Lee, himself a transplant from the U.K., of ABC's most recent programming philosophy — and the key to its success. And though he'll continue to take bets on diverse voices with midseason entries Fresh Off the Boat and American Crime, both of which are garnering strong critical buzz, he stresses that he's ordered these shows not to make a point but rather because they are "great" shows. Asked early in the panel when his long-running unscripted Bachelor franchise would reflect that same level of diversity, Lee responded: "You are going to see diversity as we go through that," adding that while the current Bachelor, Chris Soules, is a white male, "I'm sure many of the future guys are going to be [diverse]."

No Longer Singing

It seems Rising Star was the nail in the coffin. Asked whether he would try another singing competition show after a series of misfires, Lee tried to deflect with praise for the network's other unscripted franchises — Dancing With the Stars, Shark Tank and The Bachelor — before noting that there will be no singing competitions on ABC's summer schedule. "I don't think we're going to be trying that for a little bit," he said of the genre, declining to comment on Rising Star's scapegoat, Lisa Berger, the network's reality chief who was tossed out after only a year or so in the job. All Lee would say on that topic is that he has a candidate for the top reality gig — sorry, he isn't ready to make an announcement just yet — and he's "very optimistic about that department."

Fresh Off the Boat Fallout

Yeah, yeah, Lee read the same bombshell New York column — Network TV Ate My Life, by Eddie Huang — that you did. And while he no doubt would have (lots) more to share if our tape recorders were off, this was his response: "We love Eddie. He's a firebrand. It's one of the reasons why we did the show. That being said, it's not my old world; I'm not making BBC documentaries like I used to. It's a comedy. The show is not a documentary of his book." After showering the February comedy with still more compliments, he suggested the press corps save its questions for Huang and the show's other producers, who would grace the same stage later in the morning. Done.

The Old and the New

The ABC chief calls his network's rebranding of Thursday nights — appropriately titled TGIT Thursdays — a "brilliant mix of the very new and the very old." On one hand, he noted it was a very traditional piece of scheduling — three Rhimes hits in a row: Grey's Anatomy, Scandal and Murder — with the a very modern dose of social media that allows viewers to talk about the series in real time. "A billion Facebook impressions," Lee exclaimed from stage. That the cultural phenomenon Lee's team has created encourages America to consume wine and popcorn in that process? All the better. 

Notes? What Notes!

Lee's biggest and most distinctive shows come from some of the medium's biggest voices, be it Rhimes or Modern Family's Chris Lloyd and Steve Levitan, and he argues that his staff lets those voices be heard, largely unfiltered. He reminded the room that he is a former showrunner himself and "knows what it's like to take notes," which is why it's been so important to him that his network and studio not over-note its storytellers. "We're very proud of how focused we are and often how minimalist we are in terms of notes," he added, careful to note that even top writers often do like another set of eyes and he's thrilled with the balance his team has struck.

What about Nashville? Revenge? And Shark Tank?

The network honcho is never short on superlatives to offer his series, and this panel was no different. When asked, he called ratings-challenged Revenge "a critical brand" for ABC, noting that there are "some great storylines" coming up, and plugged the global significance of Nashville. Though he's not entirely certain he has this fact right, he said that something like 40 percent of Tennessee's tourism of late "comes from people who watch Nashville around the world." As for Shark Tank, a sleeper hit for his network, he's optimistic that all of the series' sharks will continue with the show, despite Mark Cuban's financial frustrations, which surfaced as part of the Sony hack. Lee garnered laughs in the room when he acknowledged the irony of the situation: "It's kind of brilliant when you have a show where the very idea of it is that these are the best negotiators in the world and then you negotiate with them," he said. "But I'm thrilled to say Jana Winograde, my head of negotiations, is as good as the great sharks that are out there, and we'll be in good shape.

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