TV Upfronts: ABC Entertainment Chief on 'Grey's Anatomy's' Future, 'SHIELD' Spinoff, More

Ahead of his pitch to ad buyers, Paul Lee spoke to the press about 'American Crime's' planned reset and the "firecracker" that is 'Fresh Off the Boat's Eddie Huang.
Brigitte Sire
Paul Lee

Paul Lee is prepared to take a well-earned victory lap when he meets with Madison Avenue buyers at ABC's annual upfront bazaar Tuesday afternoon.

Only a year earlier, the president of the network's entertainment group had a schedule heavy on headaches, including quickly killed Killer Women, Lucky 7 and Mind Games; today, Lee presides over the only Big Four network to register gains (up 5 percent, year-over-year). What's more, he has minted a new cadre of hits in How to Get Away With Murder and Black-ish, and has changed the narrative with a push for diverse talent in front of and behind the camera.

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“We’re obviously proud of our success … and we didn’t get there by chance,” Lee noted during a conference call with reporters earlier in the day. Among the key themes that he suggests helped to get his network to this place: reflecting the real world, and focusing on flow on his schedule.

Looking ahead, Lee will make another concerted push for diversity (Uncle Buck, starring a black family), as well as make big bets on proven players (hitmaker Shonda Rhimes and her disciples) and proven properties (The Muppets). Or, as he'll peddle it from the Lincoln Center stage, a focus on "buzzworthy" shows," a schedule rooted in "stability and real ambition" and a brand that reflects "smart, emotional, inclusive storytelling."

In addition to downplaying the revolving door of controversy surrounding Fresh Off the Boat inspiration Eddie Huang ("he’s a firecracker, that’s what inspired the whole show"), here are the five highlights as Lee gave his pitch a test run with the press:

1. (Lots) More Castle, Grey’s Anatomy

Lee shot down rumors that the forthcoming season of Castle would be its last. He said he was similarly hopeful that Grey’s Anatomy will continue for many more seasons, despite the recent departure of star Patrick Dempsey. “I would like to see them run for many, many years to come,” he said of the pair of long-running dramas, adding that his powerhouse producer Rhimes has “great plans for next season [of Grey's] and many years beyond.”

2. The Future of American Crime

Despite the widespread critical praise for John Ridley’s anthology drama, many were surprised when the little-watched entry was given a second season order. Now that it has, the prestige play will hit the reset, focusing on a “completely different scenario and a completely different crime even placed in a different part of America,” said Lee. At the same time, the network chief revealed that many of the actors from American Crime’s first season will be back for season two, though in this case they’ll be playing entirely new characters — a format similar to Ryan Murphy's FX anthology American Horror Story.

3. The Marvel Spinoff That Wasn’t

Lee took the opportunity to compliment corporate sibling Marvel’s Agents of SHIELD, suggesting that the second-year drama “is really hitting its creative stride this year.” At the same time, he said he wasn’t ready to pull the trigger on the planned spinoff, which would have starred Adrianne Palicki and Nick Blood. Instead, the pair will remain on the original — at least for now. As for that other top-secret Marvel project that Ridley is said to be working on for ABC, Lee has little to offer “other than to say he’s working on it.”

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4. Not Your Grandmother’s Muppets

The ABC honcho had lots of praise to shower on his latest batch of pilots — including anthology Wicked City (a “crazy good” pilot), Quantico (a “great popcorn thrill-ride”) and The Family (“one of the best pilots of the season”) — but it was The Muppets that seemed to have him chuckling the most. In describing the Bill Prady iteration, for which the “building went crazy" during the network's pilot screenings, he joked: “This is not your grandmother’s Muppets.” In fact, just as the original poked fun at variety shows, this will do so with the mockumentaries that line today’s grids.

5. Mind the Gap

In a clear sign of stability, ABC is leaving much of its schedule in tact, while once again embracing largely repeat-free runs broken up by "gap shows" that will run interrupted in between. The strategy is one born out of necessity, noted Lee, who suggested the old original-repeat-original-original-repeat scheduling is no longer an option in an era of myriad choices. Though he acknowledged it took him time to get the strategy right — and the marketing muscle needed to launch so many new shows throughout the year can get pricey — he's pleased with the most recent season's results and is hopeful that he'll have similar good fortune going forward, particularly since he's selected some of his best product, including Wicked City, to wedge into those "bridge" slots.

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Returning anthology Secrets and Lies — with star Juliette Lewis — will fill in for Nashville; Shondaland's The Catch will take over for How to Get Away With Murder; Galavant will again sub for Once Upon a Time; The Real O'Neals will take over Tuesdays at 8:30 come 2016 when Fresh Off the Boat moves back to 8 p.m. after The Muppets ends its run. And buzzy drama The Family will take over for Kings and Prophets on Sundays at 10 p.m., while anthology Wicked City will sub for Quantico.

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