ABC's Paul Lee on Pilot Season Strategy, Ratings Struggles, Marvel Plans

“We’re still in pilot season and the upfront is still important for us, but we’re also having lots of fun starting to create shows that we go direct to series on and some of them we do outside of pilot season," Lee tells reporters at the TCA press tour.
Paul Lee

ABC’s Paul Lee plans to remain largely committed to pilot season – at least for now.

The ABC Entertainment Group president took the stage at the Television Critics Association’s semiannual press tour Friday to address a range of topics, including the merits of pilot season. The latter became the topic du jour when Fox’s Kevin Reilly used the same soapbox earlier in the week to reveal his network would be bypassing the springtime arms race for talent and programming. In the days since, CBS’ Nina Tassler and the CW’s Mark Pedowitz have acknowledged the system’s challenges but noted that they nonetheless will remain in that business.

STORY: Fox's Kevin Reilly Reveals Plans to 'Bypass' Pilot Season

“We’re still in pilot season, and the upfront is still important for us,” Lee said from the stage, adding that it won't be a one-size-fits-all approach at ABC: “We’re also having lots of fun starting to create shows that we go direct to series on, and some of them we do outside of pilot season.” He pointed to upcoming straight-to-series drama The Black Box as an example of a project that was developed outside of the traditional broadcast season, noting the casting advantages that can come with having time and a commitment of longevity.

But Lee is not going the way of Reilly, as evidenced by the collection of projects he’s already picked up -- and will continue to pick up -- to pilot this season. “I’m a gradualist, for good or ill,” he noted of his approach, acknowledging that the traditional model is not without benefits: “The focus and the deadlines that pilot season brings have been extremely successful for American TV for 50 years," he said, "and I for one sat in British television and looked up to the American ability to create factories of television that go on for five, six and seven seasons.”

During his half hour before the press, Lee also addressed a host of different topics, from SHIELD's ratings disappointment to the quick demise of limited series The Assets. Here are the highlights:

More Marvel

“In these broadcast jobs, you’ve really got to add a couple of assets a year. If you don’t do that, you pay for it the next year,” he said, identifying The Goldbergs and SHIELD as this year's "assets" for ABC. Still, Lee acknowledged that it took them awhile to “get our sea legs” on SHIELD, noting that it was disappointing to see the ratings tumble the Marvel series suffered early on. As for plans for more Marvel series on ABC, he said he'd be looking for big, broad shows, while his studio's four-series Marvel deal with Netflix will be more focused on Marvel "superfan" programming.

STORY: CBS' Nina Tassler Defends Pilot Season: It 'Works for Us'

A Limited Commitment

Lee was insistent that the network will continue to commission limited-run, gap programming despite ratings failures of The Assets and Killer Women. "In the end, what we need do as we test out different pieces [of programming] is find ones that work both financially and creatively so that we can have programming the whole year-round," he said. (The Assets was yanked after two low-rated episodes filling the Thursday night at 10 p.m. slot while Scandal is on winter hiatus. Reruns of Shark Tank replaced it, doubling The Assets' ratings. For its part, Killer Women, which is executive produced by Modern Family star Sofia Vergara, will end its run in the problematic Tuesday 10 p.m. slot earlier than planned, with mid-season Christian Slater drama Mind Games set to bow Feb. 25.) Lee called The Assets, an Aldrich Ames spy drama that was produced in partnership with ABC News, "a great experiment," adding that he's keen "to continue with that experiment even though [The Assets] didn't work. Being able to work with my partner [ABC News president] Ben Sherwood and build programming that can go in those periods, is something we feel good about."

Rising Star Conundrum

Lee used the TCA stage to tout June singing competition Rising Star as the "next generation of reality shows." Still, he admitted that producers are trying to figure out how to adapt the red-hot Israeli entry, which features live voting while contestants are performing, for the East and West Coast time zones. Though he noted that no decisions have been made, Lee said that the show's U.S. producers are kicking around a few different solutions to the three-hour time zone gap, including allowing West Coast viewers to vote early when the show is airing live on the East Coast and also reserving a couple of finalist slots for West Coast and Mountain Time voters. 

Lead-Ins Still Matter, Just Not as Much 

"The reality is [lead-in] matters, but it does not matter the way it did in the '80s," Lee noted when asked about his network's struggles with launching a hit coming out of a Modern Family, adding that sometimes 70 percent of his viewership will be time-shifting his fare. He'll be giving Mixology, which revolves around 10 characters at the same bar and takes place over one night, the enviable post-Modern slot Wednesday nights beginning Feb. 26, and he's optimistic about its potential there. "When you have a great show life Mixology, it's best chance is there," he said, noting that he's not daunted by his other 20-something comedy Happy Endings' struggles in that slot. "We want to make sure [Mixology] has it's best chance of getting out of the gate and doing very well." He also noted that he continues to be committed to having two nights of comedy on his schedule, giving a strong vote of confidence for the future of both Trophy Wife and The Goldbergs.