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ABC Entertainment Chief Wants More Marvel, 'Grey's Anatomy'

At TCA's executive session, Paul Lee also defended the finale of "Nashville," welcomed Netflix competition and took a shot at Fox's Kevin Reilly and NBC's Bob Greenblatt.

Paul Lee - H 2013
ABC
Paul Lee

ABC Entertainment Group president Paul Lee kicked off his executive session at the Television Critics Association press tour Sunday morning by taking a shot at NBC's Bob Greenblatt and Fox's Kevin Reilly, both of whom opened their panels with lengthy tutorials on their networks' ratings complete with pie charts and graphs.

"I brought a 90-page PowerPoint presentation for you," quipped Lee as he took the stage in the Beverly Hilton ballroom.

But Lee did take some time to talk up his network's "upscale audience," No. 1 status among women 18-49 and the "mantle of the most co-viewed network."

STORY: ABC Formalizes Split-Season Lineup 

This season, ABC will attempt to broaden its audience further with the family comedy The Goldbergs and Marvel's Agents of SHIELD. Lee characterized SHIELD and Goldbergs as "four-quadrant shows." They'll anchor an all-new Tuesday night this fall; SHIELD opens the night at 8 p.m., leading into the comedy block of The Goldbergs and Trophy Wife, followed by drama Lucky 7 at 10 p.m. "We're super proud to be the No. 1 women's 18-49 network," said Lee. "We're also a broadcast network, so it's absolutely incumbent on us to make sure we bring in a wider audience beyond that. We focus on empowered women. But we are men-inclusive. We are family-inclusive. And we are highly co-viewed."

About that Nashville finale…

Nashville's increasingly melodramatic tone and its car crash finale earned critical brickbats. But Lee defended the direction of the Connie Britton-Hayden Panettiere drama, which started the season as among the most well-received new series. "I think they really started to find their feet toward the end of the season," said Lee. "When you watch that finale it has a completely different mood. There is a sort of impending doom that leads you through to the car crash. I think [creator Callie Khouri and her writers] certainly said to themselves, let's start to turn over the cards more aggressively. But they've built a particularly interesting musical voice to that show that I think is extremely distinctive." Lee added that Britton's character will "really drive the plot" in season two. "That particular rivalry that goes on between her and Hayden is really coming to a head. We're very excited about next season."

Revenge season two stumble

And Lee did admit that former critical darling Revenge had an uneven second season, which precipitated the departure of original showrunner Mike Kelley. "We stumbled a little bit in the second season," said Lee, while characterizing the first season of the show as "fabulous." Revenge will continue to air at 9 p.m. Sunday next season, leading into new drama Betrayal. Sunil Nayar, who joined Revenge at the start of the second season, has taken over for Kelley. The third season will be "slightly less complicated," added Lee.

Is Netflix the evil empire?

Unlike some of his broadcast competitors, Lee did not take the bait to criticize Netflix's insurgency into linear television's turf. And Disney-ABC has extensive licensing agreements with both Netflix and Amazon that include broadcast shows such as Grey's Anatomy and back episodes of Lost as well as Disney Channel and ABC Family properties. "As head of [ABC Studios] it's always great to have a new entrant that we can sell to," he said. "We also have very strong relationships with them in terms of the shows we put there. To have competition keeps us all on our toes and I welcome it."

More Marvel on tap?

Lee is keen to exploit Disney's partnerships with Marvel and Star Wars creator George Lucas' Lucasfilm; Disney acquired Marvel and Lucasfilm last year for $4 billion each. Agents of SHIELD will be the first Marvel property to get the primetime series treatment at ABC. "We are loving this relationship [with Marvel]," gushed Lee. "The relationship with Marvel and with other Disney [intellectual property] across the company is something we are ambitious to build. We have lots of little schemes in mind." But Lee was mum on details. And he added that development with Lucasfilm may take more time considering the company's full plate, with a new Star Wars trilogy, the first of which is due in 2015. "We have started conversations with them," said Lee. "I'd love to go there. I'm a particular fan of Lucasfilm. It's an amazing world."

The future of Grey's Anatomy

Deals with the six core Grey's Anatomy cast members, including Ellen Pompeo and Patrick Dempsey, are up after the upcoming season. And several have expressed interest in pursuing other work. But Lee said he hopes to have the show on ABC for "many years to come" and expressed confidence that creator Shonda Rhimes would find a way to weather whatever casting changes occur. "Shonda is an extraordinary creative force," said Lee. "If I commented on who was coming in and out, I think Shonda would yell at me. The reality is, she certainly is planning a number of series outs. She will, like she always does, bring changes that are extraordinary. We would certainly like to see it on the network for many years to come."

The last word on Happy Endings

After three seasons and myriad time slot changes, the ax finally fell on Happy Endings last May. The show, which bowed in the enviable Wednesday time slot after Modern Family, was shunted around the schedule and never quite found a big enough audience to save it from cancelation. Asked if the time slot moves may have sabotaged Happy Endings, Lee admitted that "last fall was extraordinarily challenging" for broadcast television overall with preemptions caused by the presidential election. But he asserted that "a show has to attract an audience on its own. We never found in the places that we put it that we could bring an audience to it, which was upsetting because it was a very, very good show. It couldn't find its sea legs away from a strong lead-in."