ABC Boss Karey Burke on Live Push and "Bringing Swagger Back to Broadcast"

Karey Burke  - TCA winter 2020 - Publicity - H 2020
ABC/Frank Micelotta

Karey Burke, now a year into her role as ABC Entertainment president, on Wednesday made her third presentation to TV critics and reiterated her belief in the strength of broadcast, despite continued ratings erosion and parent company Disney's streaming priority.

Citing examples including The Office and Friends — the latter of which she helped develop — Burke told reporters at the Television Critics Association's winter press tour in Pasadena that her network is doing its part to "bring much deserved swagger back to broadcast television" as those landmark hits are now being used to help launch streaming platforms.  

Burke pointed out that mega-hits including ABC's Modern Family and CBS' recently concluded The Big Bang Theory were built on broadcast, which she continues to see as a way to reach sizable audiences. As part of her push to build up her network, Burke revealed plans to have at least one big tentpole live event monthly — be it another edition of Jimmy Kimmel and Norman Lear's Live in Front of a Studio Audience or additional live hours of franchises including The Bachelor and American Idol. Upcoming live events include the Oscars — which Burke revealed would go without a "traditional" host for the second year in a row — as well as Nik Wallenda's Highwire Live (March), another edition of the NFL Draft (April) and Live in Front of a Studio Audience (May).  

"At ABC, we are creating big culturally impactful events," Burke said from the stage.

After sharing a photo from her surprise and "last-minute" Christmas Eve wedding, Burke opened her remarks by paying respect to Modern Family, which will end its 11-season run in April. The exec noted that the family-comedy genre had been effectively "declared dead" before Modern Family bowed a decade ago and credited the Emmy-winning hit for helping to usher in ABC's family-comedy brand that now includes shows like Black-ish, American Housewife, The Goldbergs, Single Parents, The Conners and Fresh Off the Boat, the latter of which will also conclude this season. "The 250th episode may be its last, but it's far from the last we'll be hearing about Modern Family," Burke said. (The exec has been open about wanting a spinoff, though co-creator Steve Levitan — who opened ABC's TCA day — said none is currently in the works.)

While Modern Family helped bring back the family comedy, Burke noted that Thirtysomething had the same impact on ushering ABC into the family soap genre at a time when broadcast was dominated by detective dramas. To that end, she announced the network has handed out a pilot order to Thirtysomething(else), a sequel featuring a number of original stars.

"Today's thirtysomethings were yesterday's millennials," said the exec, calling the sequel from original creators Marshall Herskovitz and Ed Zwick a "huge scripted priority" for ABC. The reboot, she said, will offer a stark contrast to the original and explore how many thirtysomethings today can't afford to buy homes and some still live with their parents — a stark contrast to the former network hit.

Here are other highlights from Burke's 35 minutes before the press corps:

Priority on Live and Unscripted

Burke singled out Tuesday's ratings performance of Jeopardy's primetime champions special — 14 million viewers! — and acknowledged the work of ABC's head of unscripted Rob Mills in helping the network's franchises become the mega-hits they are. She also announced a music-focused spinoff of The Bachelor as well as a celebrity-driven Who Wants to Be a Millionaire (hosted by Kimmel) and confirmed the order of Supermarket Sweep with Leslie Jones at its front. The exec called the Bachelor franchise "the unscripted unicorn" and said it has helped bring a generation of "broadcast first-ers" to ABC.  

"We leaned into live and event programming and that helped make 2019 a great year for us," said Burke, highlighting that ABC rebounded to become the No. 1 network of 2019 — its first time at the top in four years, though it is tied with NBC. "We have momentum and plan to build on it." Other announcements on that front Wednesday included news of a Mel Brooks-produced live take on Young Frankenstein (for Halloween) and a live, election-themed episode of The Conners that will incorporate results of the New Hampshire primary in real time.

"The strategy we've adopted [is to have] at least one monthly tentpole event. Some months we'll have more. Some are legacy parts of our history, some are new like Live in Front of a Studio Audience and The Little Mermaid," Burke said. "Eventizing franchises is part of that strategy. … It's a combination of looking for new properties that feel that they can thrive specifically on broadcast and cater to tens of millions of viewers."

Strength of the Disney Brand

Burke was asked multiple times about where ABC stands amid Disney's streaming push — Disney+ launched last year after the company acquired full control of Hulu — and said that the infusion of Fox assets and creation of a "massive studio with talent" will help solidify ABC's future. "Hulu helps broaden our reach," she said, noting that the median reach of ABC programming on the streamer is 23 years younger than it is on the linear network.

As for how content finds the proper home within the Disney portfolio, Burke noted that she doesn't see Disney+ as competition for ABC. "The great news is we have distinct audiences. They have a very defined brand out of the gate and we are broadcasters and serve our audiences differently and the content we seek is quite different," said the exec. "We don't see them as our competition — we see them as our partners. We make each other better. … We haven't found ourselves in dogfights with our partners."

Burke was also asked about finding ABC's next mega-producer as its Shonda Rhimes-produced programming slims to two shows with the upcoming end of How to Get Away With Murder, and she pointed to the infusion of talent following the Fox deal.

"We already have in our midst the next version of Shonda. I can't tell you the game-changing nature of the combination of 20th Century Fox TV, Fox 21 and ABC Studios," said Burke. "What that's felt like at ABC; to have a stable of showrunners and next generation of showrunners who focus on ABC as their broadcast platform. We have a better chance than we ever had to find the next broadcast creators. They're already in our midst."

Oscars Will be Hostless Again

For the second year in a row, ABC's Oscars telecast will go without a "traditional" host as Burke reiterated her previous comments that, together with the Academy, all parties hope to "repeat what worked" last year when the kudocast posted sizable ratings gains: "We expect we're going to have another very commercial set of nominations. Our goal is to present the most entertaining show possible. The producers already have a plan for what is going to be an entertaining telecast."

ABC, meanwhile, will also air the Emmys in September, and Burke was asked if she had a host in mind for that ceremony. "Baby Yoda!" she quipped in a nod to the breakout character from Disney+'s The Mandalorian.

Paying Respects

Burke opened her Q&A with reporters by paying her respects to Ugly Betty creator Silvio Horta, who died Tuesday at the age of 45. ABC launched Horta's career with Ugly Betty, and Burke called the late showrunner a "beloved member of the ABC family. Our thoughts are with his friends and family today," she said.

Support for Sean Spicer

Burke noted that she still "stands by" her decision to have the former Trump administration exec on ABC's Dancing With the Stars. Many considered Spicer to have remained on Dancing far beyond what his ballroom skills earned. Burke reiterated that DWTS is "not a political show," though ultimately the audience vote kept him on the program, thanks likely to the president's social media support. "Ultimately, the right person won the show," said the exec. Meanwhile, the franchise is awaiting word on a renewal, with a decision likely coming soon.

Future of Marvel on Broadcast

This season, ABC will bid farewell to Agents of SHIELD, the drama that launched Marvel into primetime scripted originals. After developing multiple projects, ABC has no immediate plans for another show from the comic book giant. Burke said she's already having conversations with new Marvel content boss Kevin Feige, who now oversees all the creative for film and television (and replaced TV head Jeph Loeb). "We are sad to see SHIELD go. It's been a big part of our history," she said. "I'm looking forward to working with Kevin Feige and the new incarnation of Marvel. We're in beginning conversations with him now about what a Marvel ABC show might look like. Their focus now is on Disney+, which is what it should be."

Future of Grey's Anatomy

It wouldn't be a press tour without a question about the future of ABC's top drama. Already renewed through next season — its 17th — Burke said Grey's Anatomy will run as long as star Ellen Pompeo is "interested in playing Meredith Grey." As for the spinoff Station 19, which is now overseen by Grey's showrunner Krista Vernoff, Burke said the show will be more closely tied in with the flagship in a way that feels organic. "Throughout the season, there will be four tentpole events that revolve around big emergencies that would start with first responders and end up in the hospital that take the storytelling through a two-hour block," said the exec. That begins with the Station 19 season three premiere on Jan. 23, which leads into the midseason return of Grey's (which returns to its former 9 p.m. slot).