Why Did ABC Chief Say Network Is 'Rebuilding'?

Paul Lee - H 2013

A very surprising thing happened while Paul Lee, president of ABC Entertainment Group, was superbly glazing over eyes at the Television Critics Association on Friday by obfuscating his ass off about the general state of the network.

He said ABC was rebuilding.

Not once, but four times.

Now, I find that kind of fascinating since nobody has talked about ABC rebuilding since, well, since Lee took over. NBC? Sure, Bob Greenblatt has been rebuilding that piece by piece for awhile.

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Usually a network rebuilds when they oust a president, as they are wont to do. But an established network that, like ABC, isn't firing on all cylinders but hasn't been completely dumped on the trash heap normally stays the course, tossing out shows that don't work and replacing them with brand-familiar ones that everyone prays will work.

But you never say "rebuilding." Not ever.

Now, I like Lee quite a bit. I have known him since his days at BBC America and think he's got a bright mind. He knows a lot about television. I've joked that the one big thing I didn't know about the British expatriate is that he grew up adoring really cheesy American television. Once he assumed the mantle of ABC he tried to replicate that sensibility in many ways. Here I was thinking it was going to be some BBC-type infusion and instead he admitted to a fondness for wide-appeal series with no sharp angles.

Under his leadership, Lee has kept ABC strongly focused on women with shows like Scandal and Revenge and served the larger Disney brand with Once Upon a Time, while dutifully maintaining the likes of Grey's Anatomy and such.

How has ABC performed under his leadership? Not particularly well, actually, often battling NBC -- as it rebuilds -- to stay out of fourth place in a four-network race. Running a network is a job that often ends in failure. Everybody who takes those entertainment president jobs know that almost immediately. And it's only become tougher as viewers have gained more options elsewhere.

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This fall, ABC whiffed with Back in the Game, Super Fun Night, Lucky 7, Once Upon a Time in Wonderland and Betrayal. Other series like the high-profile Agents of SHIELD haven't performed as well as expected. Midseason launches Killer Women and miniseries The Assets tanked. Both were pulled quickly from the schedule. Lee was here on Friday touting the replacements, plus spinning the overall performance of the network.

That spinning wasn't artful so much as it was relentlessly deceptive and murky. Lee wanted to present ratings numbers "without sports" -- which would severely undercut the performance of the other networks and is not actually how the Nielsen game is played. Maybe evaluating performance inside Disney is done differently (and that would certainly be to Lee's advantage).

Lee talked about taking "swings" but not so much about whiffing. Even when something was a spectacular failure, like working with ABC News to do The Assets, Lee pretended like it was a great idea he'd do again in a second.

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He even said, verbatim: "Killer Women we're ending slightly early so we can bring in and give a great launch to Mind Games." I mean, that's just a majestically audacious way to say you're killing a series that was DOA in the first few minutes of its pilot, without actually saying those words. I can envision other network presidents picking up the "We're ending [name of series] slightly early" euphemism because it's awesome.

Now, this is a town built on whispers and conjecture and some of that has swirled around Lee's fate at ABC. That's why the "rebuilding" talk was a bit startling.

ABC is rebuilding? That's kind of newsy.

See: "You know, as you're rebuilding a network, you sit down and you consciously say, 'We're going to take a number of swings, and we know that a number of them are not going to work, and we want to take risks.' ”

Then: "We feel we started well with the fall. We don't have sports. So we just judge ourselves without them, and certainly, for the fall, we were No. 1 [in] C3, we were No. 1 [in] L7, and we won the November sweeps. And I think the reason that we were doing that is, as we rebuild this network, we've really now got a portfolio of assets."

Then: "And as you start to look across our schedule as we rebuild it, we now really have building blocks on every night."

Also: "But, look, when you rebuild a network, you take the commitment at the beginning that you're going to take a number of swings and that a number of them are not going to work."

Do you see a pattern there? In fact, the first and fourth references are so on message that I'm inclined to believe there really was a message to send us, almost subliminally (because, as you read those quotes, they are dizzying in their sense of spin).

An argument could be made that a network in rebuilding mode has lower expectations of success. Lower expectations would certainly help the person in charge keep their job. And since I like Lee, I guess all I can really say is, "Well played, sir."

Email: Tim.Goodman@THR.com
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