TV Upfronts: ABC's Paul Lee on 'Trophy Wife's' Demise, 'Grey's Anatomy's' Future and Passing on Kevin Hart

The ABC Entertainment Group president discussed the importance of diversity and the increasingly lax standards concerns in the 8 p.m. "family" hour.
Paul Lee

Hours before Madison Avenue buyers were set to pack into Lincoln Center for ABC's upfront presentation, Entertainment Group president Paul Lee offered reporters an early glimpse at his strategy.

Not known for his candor, Lee glossed over the network's disappointing fourth-place finish, with no mention of this season's sizable batch of failed shows, including Killer Women, Lucky 7 and Mind Games. He focused instead on ABC's passionate, social-media-savvy fan base and its late-in-the-season momentum, and used the call with reporters to wax on about "adorable" new entries from Emily Kapnek's sitcom Selfie to Dan Fogelman's musical fairy tale Galavant.

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Below are the highlights:

Diversity Is Key

Scandal was an eye-opening experiment for Lee, who walked away that much more confident that a U.S. audience not only wants but also demands the kind of diversity on screen that it sees off. It is for that reason that he's lined his forthcoming schedule with shows including Black-ish (about an upper-middle-class black father struggling to raise his kids with a sense of cultural identity), Cristela (about an American Latina straddling two cultures) and John Ridley's American Crime (about a racially charged trial). "We wanted to reflect the changing face of America," Lee noted, adding later in the call: "We do think America has changed. We saw that in the election cycle, we see it in everything that's happening. [To air these shows is] perfectly appropriate for a network like this; and, in fact, I think it's the right thing to do now."

Playing by Different Rules

Although Lee never made mention of the onslaught of competition from cable or the impact it has had, he did acknowledge that his network has had to rethink its development process as far as landing producers is concerned. "Normally we wait for pitches to come in," said Lee, "but this year we went out and approached the strongest storytellers and voices and we said, ‘Bring us your passion projects. We'll take off the handcuffs -- bring us the things that will change the game.' " Lee pointed to Ridley's American Crime as an example of a project born out of this strategy – and, true to plan, not yet seen on broadcast television.

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About That "Family" Hour

Two of ABC's biggest and raciest dramas, Grey's Anatomy and Scandal, will be moving up an hour, which had a few reporters wondering whether Lee had any concerns or plans to scale back the content. "I think it's much less relevant than it was five years ago," he said, referring specifically to the 8 p.m. "family" hour, where Grey's Anatomy will soon move. His sales department, he adds, is "fully supportive" of the move as well. As Lee sees it, Grey's is a particularly stable hit for the network, and he likes the idea of having it (a) paired with two other Shonda Rhimes shows in Scandal and newcomer How to Get Away with Murder and (b) filling a programming hole that has proved problematic for ABC in years past.

Sorry About Those

It's easy to get the impression Lee is incapable of serving up criticism. After all, when pressed on the demise of Trophy Wife, he said: "I was sad to see it go. We gave it a lot of promotion in a lot of ways, and I'm sorry it didn't come back." That Kevin Hart comedy he decided to pass on: "We would love to be in business with Kevin. He's a fantastic star." And the end for Suburgatory: "Suburgatory was a very good asset for us. The first season was particularly strong, and I think this season did well."

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Comedy, the Self-Starting Genre?

Just 24 hours after rival Kevin Reilly, Fox Entertainment chairman, said during a conference call with the same group of reporters that it's very challenging to have a live-action comedy launch without a strong lead-in in today's fractured environment, Lee used the platform to suggest precisely the opposite. It is for that reason, that Lee will be relying on Selfie to kick off ABC's Tuesday night lineup, noting that The Goldbergs' success at 9 p.m. this past season had little to do with its SHIELD lead-in. "Actually Goldbergs was sort of self-starting there," he said of the Adam F. Goldberg comedy, adding of Selfie and its lead-out Manhattan Love Story's lack of cover: "We think our comedies are really promotable."