ABC Entertainment Chief: There Were No Big Hits on the Broadcast Networks, ABC in Particular

Paul Lee addresses the TCA winter press tour Thursday in Pasadena.
Paul Lee addresses the TCA winter press tour Thursday in Pasadena.
 ABC

ABC Entertainment president Paul Lee opened his executive session Thursday at the Television Critics Association winter press tour in Pasadena by proclaiming that he was “disappointed” there were “no big, breakout hits” on ABC this fall – or on “any of the networks."

NBC’s Bob Greenblatt might quibble with that assessment; J.J. AbramsRevolution is the No. 1 new drama, averaging a 3.0 rating in live ratings in the 18-49 demographic and an impressive 4.9 rating when including seven days of delayed viewing.)

ABC, which sits in fourth place among its broadcast competition, has struggled to build a viable comedy block on Tuesdays and has seen only middling ratings for Nashville, for which the network had very high hopes. Season-to-date, Nashville has an edge over NBC’s Chicago Fire Wednesday night at 10, but Chicago bested Nashville in their first head-to-head matchup of the new year.

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“As we look at our season so far, we feel we have a lot to shout about,” said Lee. “And we also have a lot to do."

Meanwhile, freshman dramas 666 Park Avenue and Last Resort have been canceled. Lee noted that he was “surprised” that 666 Park failed. But he acknowledged Shawn Ryan’s Last Resort alienated the network’s core female viewers -- an outcome many industry observers predicted about the drama focused on a rogue submarine captain. “It was a male show,” said Lee. “We did not connect with the relationship to the women."

Another disappointment that won’t be repeated is the all-star edition of Dancing With the Stars, which seemed to undermine the show’s conceit of watching amateur dancers improve over time. “It turns out people like bad dancing as much as they like good dancing,” said Lee.

In the coming months, ABC will bow two new dramas (Zero Hour and Red Widow), two unscripted series (Celebrity Diving and cooking competition show The Taste, which bows Jan. 22) and two comedies (Family Tools and the Sarah Chalke-headlined How to Live With Your Parents (for the Rest of Your Life), which will get the post-Modern Family slot on Wednesdays beginning April 3.

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The future of returning comedies Happy Endings and Don’t Trust the B---- in Apt. 23 is up in the air. But Lee said the network is double-running them on Sundays and Tuesdays to increase “sampling." But both comedies fizzled when they bowed in their new Sunday slots this week.

Lee's take on a few other topics:

Seth MacFarlane, Oscar host
MacFarlane slipped a Hitler joke into Thursday morning’s Oscar nomination announcement, underscoring the anticipation many have for a less staid Oscarcast in the hands of the Family Guy creator. Lee predicted that the host will bring a “contemporary feel” and a “sense of fun” to the Oscars but added that MacFarlane also is “coming to the Oscars with a great sense of respect.”

Patience in a delayed-viewing world
Lee said the myriad metrics available upon which to judge the performance of TV series means networks must be more patient in assessing whether something is kept or killed. “We have dashboards telling us the level of passion on social media," he said. "it is a much more complicated world, and you really do have to be patient. At the same time, shows that really resonate tend to resonate on multiple platforms. I think we in particular try to do shows that are really appointment television. It’s incumbent on all of us not to take snap judgments. That was something you could do two or three years ago."

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Violence on television
The horrifying massacre of 20 children in Newtown, Conn., on Dec. 14, has spurred a nationwide conversation about the level of violence in entertainment. It also has become a theme at the press tour. But when the question came up for Lee, who presides over a network that does not have a large quotient of intense and violent dramas, there was an audible groan in the room. “Our job is always to get a sense of what the culture is feeling,” he said. But he added that broadcast networks are beholden to FCC standards and said ABC’s own standards and practices division is even more stringent. “We welcome the conversation as to how we as a culture can make sure these events don’t happen again," Lee said. "We are tremendously sensitive to this issue; we think about it and talk about it all the time. We are storytellers, but we want to make sure that the stories we tell are done with moral integrity."

Is Dancing With the Stars on its last legs?
In the wake of a lackluster all-star edition of the veteran competition series -- won by Melissa Rycroft -- Lee reiterated his support for two iterations a year of the show, even if there won't be another all-star edition. “It’s still a big, broad, crowd- pleaser,” said Lee. “We think there’s a lot of life left in it; 16 million viewers is still a lot of viewers."

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