ABC Chief on Ratings, 'The Muppets' and More Diversity

Paul Lee - H 2013

Paul Lee has earned his victory lap.

His network, led by Shonda Rhimes dramas Scandal, Grey’s Anatomy and How to Get Away with Murder, is the only one among the Big 5 that can boast about upticks in both total viewers and the coveted 18-49 demo for the recently completed season. And though it still trailed sports-boosted NBC and CBS in linear audience size, Lee has plenty of new additions, including Black-ish, Fresh Off the Boat and Murder, and a strong narrative about embracing diversity to tout.

But rather than focus too much of his Television Critics Association summer press tour appearance on the past – save for an early "Viola Davis deserves the Emmy" plug -- he used the platform to tease what’s to come, employing a familiar batch of Lee superlatives. Of the new additions, Quantico star (and Bollywood darling) Priyanka Chopra seemed to generate the most air-time, with Lee calling her an “iconic ABC star” -- he later noted that “she’s empowered and fierce in the way that only ABC heroines are empowered and fierce.” Also getting multiple shout-outs during the session: The Muppets, which is already generating heavy buzz coming out of Comic-Con.

Here are the highlights from Lee’s half hour before the press.

In Defense of American Crime -- and Other Niche Shows

To hear Lee tell it, the proliferation of delivery systems for entertainment content has proven a boon for little-watched (at least on linear TV) shows, and Lee is rightly proud of his niche darling, American Crime, and the eight Emmy nominations it picked up in July. To make his case, he noted that a show like Crime may not have been possible ten years ago, when the broadcast business was arguably less challenged. “Now we have a much more sophisticated model where we’re driven by dual or even triple revenue streams,” he said, rather than simply relying on TV advertising. Those additional steams -- SVOD rights and international -- may still pale by comparison to linear ad revenue, but, as Lee added, “it allows you an ecosystem where you can truly create a portfolio of shows and where American Crime can be a profitable show for us, a show that is on brand for us and a show that we’re extremely proud of.”

Not About the Binge

Scandal may have proved the power of binge-watching early in the series’ lifecycle, but Lee’s not willing – at least for now – to embrace the all-at-once pre-release strategy that’s being tried not only at a Netflix but also at outlets like NBC and Starz. Where the on-demand world has spurred opportunity, said Lee, is on the creative side, where characters can be morally ambiguous and unconventional in their appearance. “Five years ago there were all sorts of rules in broadcast that were written in stone,” he told the room. “We are in a world that is a much more complex world and we’re enjoying it.”

About that Legacy ...

The guy who’s gotten plenty of (well-earned) attention for embracing a schedule of non-white stars this past year, found himself on the defensive on the very topic of diversity. At one point mid-panel, Lee was asked how his new comedies, Dr. Ken and Uncle Buck, would live up to the legacy ABC had begun building a season earlier with Black-ish and Fresh Off the Boat. “Not only did those shows star non-white talent, but they had unique things to say about race and class,” noted one reporter. “I look at the comedies that you have now that feature non-white casts – Dr. Ken and Uncle Buck – and I don’t see that uniqueness. I see a sitcom that’s built around a well-known comic actor [Ken Jeong] and I see a black version of a movie that was seen in theaters years ago.” Lee listened intently, and then shot back: “We don’t have to do with every show the same thing… They’re looking for different things.” With fall entry Dr. Ken, for instance, he stressed that the show was very much Jeong’s vision, both as a writer and an actor. And for that matter, the half-hour wasn’t designed to live on the network’s “sophisticated family comedy block” on Tuesdays or Wednesdays the way the previous pair did, but rather would serve as a Last Man Standing companion on Friday nights. He added for good measure: "It’s not our mission to do anything else but reflect the country, and by doing that we can release real creativity – I think we did that last season, and I think we’re going to do it again this season as well."

Folie a What?

As violence in American life continues unabated, Lee was forced to defend what appeared to be a rather gratuitous murder in the network’s upcoming Tuesday drama Wicked City. Describing the show as a “fascinating Bonnie and Clyde story,” Lee urged the crowd in the ballroom to give the show a chance. The network made only a five-minute cut of the show available and it featured a woman performing oral sex on an apparent serial killer before getting gruesomely stabbed to death. “It’s a folie à deux. Do you use that in America?” asked the British network chief in reference to the French term for psychosis shared by two people, a la Bonnie Parker and Clyde Barrow. And he promised that, viewed in its entirety, Wicked City’s violence would have context. “It’s a really interesting show. We’re very proud of it. And interestingly it tested very well with millennials.

Buh-bye McDreamy

Killing off a major character can be a sure fire way to get attention – and in the case of Grey's Anatomy, it certainly did. Lee noted that it had been "a difficult decision" to kill off Patrick Dempsey’s Grey’s character, which came when the actor still had a year left on his contract. Some fans were clearly upset by McDreamy’s abrupt (and brutal) demise, but the ABC chief assured the room that the show’s upcoming 12th season will not disappoint. "We've seen the pitch for Grey's for next season. The show reinvents itself again," Lee said, adding: "[Rhimes] really is a remarkable showrunner. We have no reason to suspect Grey's Anatomy won't go on for many, many years to come."