Paul Lee's Hits and Misses During His 6-Year ABC Tenure

From his ahead-of-the-curve diversity push and Shondaland's TGIT block to critically panned comedies like 'Work It' and 'Neighbors,' THR takes a look at the exec's big hits and those that failed to connect.
Getty Images; Courtesy of ABC
'Scandal,' left, Lee and 'Work It'

With ABC Entertainment Group president Paul Lee out, his six-year tenure has come to an end. But before we turn our attention to his replacement, Channing Dungey, and her plans to right the ship at the fourth-place network, The Hollywood Reporter's TV staff decided to take a look back at Lee’s biggest hits and misses. Because, yes, for every shrewd move he made on the job (the man did greenlight Scandal), there were plenty of missteps (ahem, The Muppets). 

HIT: Diversity Push

If Lee is remembered for only one accomplishment during his ABC tenure, it is likely (and rightfully) the network's aggressive push into diversity. Following the success of Shonda Rhimes' game-changing Scandal, with a black lead in Kerry Washington, Lee put multiple series on the air fronted by black casts (drama How to Get Away With Murder and comedy Black-ish), Asian-Americans (Fresh Off the Boat, Dr. Ken) and even international celebrities (Indian mega-star and Quantico lead Priyanka Chopra) — all of them commercially successful to boot. ABC's diversity has been a point of industry-wide praise of late as the film world has gotten increased flack for its relative lack of diversity and 2016's all-white Oscar nominees.

MISS: 2015-16 Season

Lee started the season with what many thought would be the biggest slam dunk: a reboot of The Muppets. That quickly fizzled when reviews came in and the sad-sack comedy notched a string of series lows before co-creator Bob Kushell was forced out. Last night's episode registered a record low 0.8 rating. Of course, that showrunner change was just one of several to plague broadcast nets this fall with ABC's Shondaland drama The Catch and Don Johnson starrer Blood & Oil also shifting gears, and biblical big swing Of Kings and Prophets pushed off the schedule to retool/recast. All of it amounted to significant losses, with the network's 14 percent slide among adults 18-49 landing it in fourth place among the Big Four.

HIT: TGIT Lineup

Although Rhimes' success at ABC predates Lee, the outgoing chief can be credited with recognizing the power of the prolific producer's brand. It was he who stood on stage at the 2014 upfront, revealing plans to introduce a Shondaland block — aptly titled TGIT — on Thursday nights. The shrewd decision to eventize the night around the network's most consistent showrunner was made that much more successful by the social media power of Rhimes and her heavily engaged talent. While problem areas line the rest of ABC's schedule, TGIT has proved a boon to the network’s ratings on a lucrative night that had long been a struggle for Lee. Rhimes’ current trio — Grey’s Anatomy, Scandal and How to Get Away With Murder — regularly rank among broadcast’s top rated dramas, with Grey’s still a top 10 show in its 12th season.

MISS: "WTF" Comedy Choices 

During his run at ABC, Lee went out on a limb with a series of choices that reflected his personal sensibilities. The most glaring example came with his cross-dressing comedy Work It, which got the hook after two little-watched episodes but not before it was bashed by critics and GLAAD. Then there was the Dan Fogelman comedy The Neighbors, about a family who move into a community populated by aliens. Although it managed to find a few believers by the end of its two-season run, the series will best be remembered as a critical punching bag. Other Lee picks that fall in the "what was he thinking category" include short-lived Mixology

HIT: A Very Disney Once Upon a Time

The fairytale-inspired series was one of Lee's first true success stories when it debuted in fall 2011, a little more than a year after he took the top job. Sure, it seemed like a cheap play for corporate synergy at first; but Once quickly proved to be a textbook tale of how to do synergy right with many of the beloved Disney characters turning up on the series. Less than a year after Frozen took moviegoers by storm and broke multiple Disney records, the film’s beloved characters were introduced on Once Upon a Time. While the series has largely been a steady performer on Sundays, having provided a solid launching pad to Sunday hits like Revenge and Quantico — the franchise stumbled in 2013 with the spinoff Once Upon a Time in Wonderland. The offshoot was originally meant to fill the gap between the flagship series’ fall and spring runs, but an overeager Lee changed his mind and scheduled it during the formerly troubled Thursdays at 8 p.m. slot, where it would go to die. The mothership survived unscathed and will celebrate its 100th episode in March.

MISS: The Big Marvel Bet That Wasn't

Everything Lee learned on Once he seemed to have forgotten with Marvel. While the latter continues to do big and broad business at the box office, its ABC offerings have failed to find the same larger audience. While diehard fanboys have given Agents of SHIELD a sturdy audience and spinoff/midseason bridge series Agent Carter is well-liked by critics, neither became the mega-hit the network and comic book powerhouse expected. Jury is out on whether the third project, pilot Marvel's Most Wanted — another SHIELD spinoff — will be more of the same or be able to break out should it move to series.

MISS: Rising Star and Other Reality Woes

Big reality sing Rising Star wasn't unique in its failure. The summer 2014 singing competition, an Israeli format many banked on reviving a fatigued genre, was simply the ABC version of a misfire that's plagued all of the broadcast networks at one point or another during the past five years. But its inability to top a 1.0 rating in the key demo despite an ambitious live telecast and real-time voting, made it a lightening rod for criticism. It was also emblematic of ABC's own struggle in unscripted entertainment, which has seen executives come and go and is still riding the coattails of aging properties Dancing With the Stars and The Bachelor.

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