ABC Chief Praises Diversity and 'Goldbergs,' Talks Missing 'Modern Family' Companion

Paul Lee sits down for his semiannual chat with the TV critics — and while there are lingering gripes about canceled "Trophy Wife," the conversation remains mostly forward-focused.
Paul Lee

Paul Lee, ABC's recently re-upped entertainment group president, had a cordial Q&A with members of the Television Critics Association on Tuesday morning — and though the network recently wrapped its fourth season at No. 4, no one seemed inclined to dwell on the negative.

Yes, several reporters' gestating frustrations over the cancellation of critical darling Trophy Wife bubbled up, but Lee's Wednesday move (and professed affection) for The Goldbergs seemed to soften the blow. The question of Wednesday's post-Modern Family missteps at 9:30 p.m. was also addressed, something Lee thinks will finally be fixed by Black-ish. (Of course, half a dozen shows before it have received a similar vote of confidence.)

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The diversity push is for authenticity — not gimmick.

ABC will head into the fall season with a batch of new comedies — and one returning in The Goldbergs — that ambitiously mine cultural and ethnic diversity, including Anthony Anderson's Black-ish, Eddie Huang's Fresh Off the Boat and Cristela Alonzo's self-titled half-hour. But Lee, who is Jewish and British, explained that his own status as a quasi-outsider in America is not the impetus for what is easily the most diverse slate on broadcast television. "If you look at shows now that lack diversity they actually feel dated because America doesn't look that way anymore," he said. "My job is to see if these shows move me. The reality is this: Great stories will resonate in the hearts and guts of audiences." Lee pointed out that all of the above shows are authentic to their creators and certainly not superficial attempts to check the multicultural box. Asked if The Goldbergs, a 1980s-set comedy about a Jewish family, needs to become more specifically Jewish, Lee explained that the show reflects the voice of creator Adam Goldberg. "It's Adam's show," he said. "I'm not going to sit there and say, 'From one Jew to another, I want a bar mitzvah."

Minding the gap.

Pardon the obvious British joke, but Lee seems more aware of the midseason gap between originals than ever. The term "bridge programming" peppered the Q&A with optimism about Agent Carter and Galavant — each of which will air their complete orders, sandwiched in the middle of Agents of SHIELD and Once Upon a Time's respective seasons. The approach, hardly new, is something he says he wished he'd done with failed Once spinoff Wonderland last season. "I would have given that show a better chance by doing what we're doing with Galavant and putting it in the gap," he admitted. As for Wonderland's failure on Thursday, Lee added that it hasn't dissuaded him from mulling another spinoff. "Adam [Horowitz] and Eddy [Kitsis] are endlessly inventive. They have glints in their eyes of stories they can spin. In many ways Once itself changes every season. It's a very exciting way to use ABC to take advantage of the IP — not just in fairy tales, but what comes out of the Walt Disney Company."

Can Modern Family finally build a companion hit?

ABC's perennial problem of launching a successful comedy on Wednesday night after Modern Family played out again last season with both Super Fun Night and Mixology failing to capitalize on the strong lead-in. And there is some question about why Lee did not schedule family comedy The Goldbergs there instead of Tuesdays, where it had an uphill climb to establish itself. Lee and scheduler Andy Kubitz seem to have absorbed a lesson from last season. And this season, ABC has scheduled Black-ish behind Modern Family. "We think our Wednesday night is going to be very, very strong," said Lee. "We think Blackish is a natural lead-out [to Modern Family]."

The jury is still out on Rising Star.

Not ready to admit defeat about big reality swing Rising Star, Lee said that he's been reassured by recent upticks in ratings and social activity. "We were a little disappointed with the numbers, we wanted it a little bit higher," he said of the modest 1.5 rating in the key demo that the June 22 debut brought. "We had to learn on the roll, and I think they learned on the roll especially well. Let's see where it goes." One credit he was happy to give the singing competition was the successful rollout of its live voting app, which did not experience the kind of glitches seen in last summer's Million Second Quiz on NBC: "It took about a week to get the West Coast save right, but I think you're going to see that idea roll through reality now."