TV Upfronts: ABC's Paul Lee on 'S.H.I.E.L.D.'s' Promise, 'Happy Endings' Demise and What's Next

Paul Lee - H 2013

Mere hours before Madison Avenue buyers were set to pack into Lincoln Center for ABC’s upfront presentation, Entertainment Group president Paul Lee served up his usual dose of descriptors.

In place of such terms as “sticky” and “candy,” which he has relied on in the past, Lee spoke to his 2013-14 schedule’s ability to provide “emotional,” "smart," “sexy,” “sophisticated” “four-quadrant” fare. And while rival Kevin Reilly was candid about recent ratings struggles at Fox, Lee avoided any acknowledgement of his network’s expected fourth-place finish among the key 18-to-49 demo. In fact, he used the conference call with reporters Tuesday to refocus the media's attention on other metrics, including ABC’s current standing as the No. 1 network among females 18-to-49 and the No. 1 brand on TV. The latter, he noted, particularly was compelling as strong branding increasingly is a critical means of cutting through in a crowded landscape.

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Here are the other things Lee touched on during the half-hour media call:

Dancing down but not out: To hear Lee tell it, the decision to downsize Dancing With the Stars to only one night (Mondays) is one that will provide a shot in the arm to an aging franchise. The goal, as he sees it, is to narrow the focus and open up Tuesday for new fare born out of a “strong” development season. While he was mum on any further format tweaks in the works for the competition franchise, he did suggest his team would be focused on casting as a way to age down the franchise, a la the most recent installation of The Bachelor.

Cable minded: Lee hasn’t forgotten where he came from. The former ABC Family chief will look to break up 24-episode seasons of certain serialized shows, including Once Upon a Time and Grey’s Anatomy, into two uninterrupted batches of 12 in the fall and spring. He intends to fill those gaps with limited series, including unscripted adventure effort The Quest. It is worth noting that ABC's limited series could come back for future seasons at truncated lengths or even return in more traditional broadcast quantities of 22 or 24 episodes. Lee also stressed the value of launching his fare throughout the season so as to avoid the annual September glut.

Happy Endings' not-so-happy ending: The decision to pull the plug on the low-rated, critical darling Happy Endings was a particularly tough one for Lee, who has acknowledged his particular affection for the show in the past. But, alas, he has a business to run, and he believes that his new entries, including Rebel Wilson’s Super Fun Night and young ensemble Mixology, have the potential to be broader.

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Female empowerment: At this time last year, Lee was busy hyping Last Resort, a more male-skewing drama from Shawn Ryan that had landed the historically challenged 8 p.m. Thursday slot. It had the opportunity to draw in new (read: male) viewers and broaden out a narrower network. But despite critical praise and hefty promotion, it failed to open the night in any significant way and did not live to see a second season. This time around, Lee has opted for a far safer route with a female-friendly Once Upon a Time spinoff Wonderland and has described the night -- which also includes long-running stalwart Grey’s Anatomy and “breakout” Scandal -- as one focused on female empowerment.

Power-packed Tuesdays: Lee will kick off his Tuesday with the closest thing to slam-dunk as he can get with Marvel’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. from The Avengers director Joss Whedon. You don’t need to spend much time listening to Lee to know that he and his team are banking on the franchise’s built-in awareness as well as its broad (or, yes, “four-quadrant”) appeal to lift the network. As he told reporters, "We think it's going to recruit a whole new audience." And his enthusiasm extends to the Adam F. Goldberg family comedy The Goldbergs, which he intends to show an extended five-minute cut-down for at the upfront. While it’s not exactly the equivalent of showing the entire pilot the way ABC did Modern Family years earlier, it is a vote of confidence nonetheless.

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