ABC's Paul Lee says he'll stay the course

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BEVERLY HILLS -- Having cut short his vacation to face the media, new ABC Entertainment chief Paul Lee took the press-tour stage Sunday and said he wasn't planning changes to the network's fall schedule.

"We are locked and loaded here," he said. "You make changes (this close to the fall) and you can do more damage than good."

Noting that he had been on the job only 36 hours and is "super unprepared," Lee gently deflected critics who tried to pin down how his regime will differ from former ABC Entertainment leader Stephen McPherson, whose abrupt resignation last week amid an internal sexual-harassment investigation put the network in a less-than-ideal position for presenting its programming to the press at the annual Television Critics Assn. gathering.

"It's too early to take a view of where are hits are going to come from next year or the year after that," Lee said. "I'm very excited about this opportunity. This is one of the iconic American storytelling brands. ... I grew up watching on faraway shores. Hopefully, it's going to be a lot of fun."

Lee is a TCA veteran, having spent years of taking questions at his previous positions running BBC America and ABC Family, so perhaps it isn't surprising he seemed quite relaxed in the hot seat Sunday at the Beverly Hilton. Asked his favorite ABC show, Lee said he was a fan of "Modern Family" and predicted the series would win the Emmy for best comedy.

"There is really fertile ground for comedy, which would not have been the case two or three years ago on this network," he said.

Lee made it clear he wouldn't program ABC with the type of shows that were on younger-targeted ABC Family, though he also noted that the cable network's core millennials demographic is now 51% of the adults 18-49 demo coveted by major broadcasters.

"Realistically, they're very very different networks," Lee said. "This is a whole new challenge. People expect smart, quality storytelling and strong emotions from this network in particular."

ABC did its best to discourage questions related to McPherson, with ABC communications chief Kevin Brockman opening the session by bringing a large stuffed pink elephant onstage -- a literal elephant in the room -- and reminded critics that the network will not comment on McPherson's exit. That didn't stop reporters from asking.

"I felt very honored to be offered the job ... but I don't want to talk about Steve," Lee said.

One comment did slip in: A critic referenced McPherson dancing on the upfront stage a few years back to promote "Dancing With the Stars" and asked whether Lee had any hidden talents.

"I remember watching that and thinking, 'I'm so glad I don't have Steve's job,' " Lee said. "I don't think you're going to see me dancing. I'm a Brit; I'm far too self-conscious."

Although new to ABC, Lee said he has watched all the network's pilots and made outreach calls to showrunners.

"Paul called me and was very supportive, and I'm looking forward to our new partnership," said Jason Richman, executive producer of "Detroit 1-8-7." "Steve was very supportive of the show ... but the day-to-day, the people we're dealing with, there's a lot of support there, and those people are the same, for now."
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