ABC's Paul Lee Says 'Grey's Anatomy' Won't Follow 'Desperate Housewives' Out the Door (Q&A)

Paul Lee Brigitte Sire P 2011
Brigitte Sire

The network's entertainment president opens up about fall's hits ("Suburgatory," "Revenge") and misses ("Charlie's Angels") and forecasts the future of ratings flagships "Grey's Anatomy" and "Dancing With the Stars."

This story appears in the Nov. 11 issue of The Hollywood Reporter.

Seated in his sparsely decorated office in Burbank, ABC Entertainment Group's mild-mannered president, Paul Lee, acknowledges he wasn't aware of all that comes with running a studio and network when he accepted the role in summer 2010.

But while the Oxford-educated former BBC America founder and ABC Family chief is busy filling holes on a schedule that has taken its share of hits in recent years, many of his freshman efforts -- from Revenge to Suburgatory to fall's No. 1 new drama, Once Upon a Time -- seem to be connecting with viewers. Still, the Modern Family network was down 4 percent in the advertiser-coveted 18-to-49 demographic five weeks into the season, according to Nielsen, weighed down by a stable of aging series and the since-canceled Charlie's Angels.

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Lee, 51, a married father of two college-age sons who got his start as a BBC reporter assigned to cover the conflict in Belfast, Northern Ireland, sat down with The Hollywood Reporter to discuss the health of reboots, the failure of Angels and the need to experiment with the broadcast model.

The Hollywood Reporter: What's the hardest thing about the job that you didn't expect?

Paul Lee: There's a huge workload for broadcast networks because you make a hell of a lot of television. I'm fairly shy, and you get a lot of attention in this job. You get scrutinized for every move you make. You're like, "Oh, I thought I'd get away with that, but everybody saw it." (Laughs)

THR: Do you foresee more deviation from the traditional broadcast model, like shorter seasons?

Lee: We're starting to. We did 10 episodes of Missing with Ashley Judd, and we're doing eight episodes of [horror drama] The River. I came from a world where if you managed to get 10 episodes of something, it was a massive success. You could crack open champagne -- well, it was more like Guinness. Here, you're a failure if you don't get beyond 16. I do think, in terms of attracting talent or certain sorts of storytelling, it makes sense with something like The River to say, "OK, let's do eight of these and really construct them in a way that makes sense." It makes sense with Ashley Judd to do a limited series. But equally important, and the power of our business, is doing 22 or 24 episodes. That's still a key business, and we're not walking away from that. One thing that distinguishes American television is that we can make storytelling that sustains over many years. But we'll play around on the edges.

THR: How about lower-cost programming, perhaps on Friday nights?

Lee: We're experimenting. We've had some success with Rookie Blue, which is a low-cost piece of programming that's successful for us in the summer. We're doing other versions of that. We're doing international co-productions, and we'll look at price points on broadcast here in the U.S. But I don't think it stops the fact that we'll be investing in big storytelling on comedy, drama and reality for primetime.

THR: Reality franchises like Dancing With the Stars have been flagging this season. Will that genre's slice of the primetime pie shrink?

Lee: Absolutely not. It's a huge genre. It probably dominates most of cable; it dominates broadcast in most countries. But it's much more difficult to come up with a reality show that's going to break the rules now. You throw somebody off an island, and it's not going to surprise people anymore.

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THR: Cable networks thrive on being clearly defined brands. How feasible and valuable would it be for a broadcast network like ABC to be one?

Lee: I'd argue ABC does have a brand. There are brands on cable whose job is to put up a sign saying, "If you're a woman, don't come in," or, "If you're a guy, don't come in," or, "If you're over 34, don't come in." The difference is that we're a more inclusive brand, closer to Apple or Target than to Urban Outfitters. It's not our job to put up a sign that says, "Don't come in," but it's absolutely our job to make brand promises that you know what you'll get if you come. I like to say it's a "smart with heart" network.

THR: You set an end date for Desperate Housewives. Is that something you'll look to do with Grey's Anatomy?

Lee: Oh no. I hope Grey's lasts another decade.

THR: Producer Mark Gordon told us he'd like it to go until he dies.

Lee: I like his ambition. Let's say five decades! With Desperate Housewives, it absolutely felt like the right thing to do. Marc [Cherry] wanted to do it and the showrunners wanted to do it. We did it with Lost before I got here, and it felt like a great thing to give it its victory lap. Marc is going to write it and he's known for eight years exactly what the last 15 minutes are. We're going to have it in a sealed envelope and delivered with a motorcade. [laughs]

THR: Why didn't Charlie's Angels work?

Lee: It's always so difficult to tell. I think we just didn't breathe life into that idea. We didn't catch the audience or get the momentum we wanted from the show.

THR: With the struggles of NBC's The Playboy Club and your Charlie's Angels and Pan Am, is retro TV dead?

Lee: No. In the end, what really matters is how good the show is. The advantage of having an established brand is that you can break out from the clutter, and in the fall launches, that's a useful thing to do. But if you don't follow it up with a fantastic show, then it's not going to sustain.

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THR: You like to say, "If I can't market it, I'm not interested in it." What does that mean?

Lee: I'm an ex-director, so I come at a show visually, which is unusual because most people who do this job are ex-developers and come from a place of words. For me, I want to believe that I can see some key art.

THR: What's a genre you would like to be in?

Lee: We're trying a new genre with The River. We look closely at what worked in previous tough times over the last century. If you look at the 1930s and the '70s, comedy did really well. It's not just that people want to laugh, they want to be entertained and transported, which is one of the reasons we did a fairy tale. Don't forget, the Walt Disney Co. is built on fairy tales from the 1930s. And if you look at those periods, fear played, too. We just came off the launch of Paranormal Activity, and we have [its creator] Oren Peli doing The River. It's unlike anything you've ever seen on ABC. It's a risk, but it's one I love taking. I'm absolutely open to looking at new genres.

THR: Between Marc Cherry's Hallelujah and Carlton Cuse's project with pastor-author Rob Bell, you're developing in the spiritual genre. What opportunities do you see in this space?

Lee: Religion is a fascinating subject, but it also goes back to the voice of the showrunner. Bobby Harling, who does [GCB], comes to religion with a heavy dose of humor. We haven't seen the redeveloped pilot of Marc's Hallelujah, but it's deeply heartfelt. I don't think it's a subject that's off-limits. It's very relevant, and I'm a great believer that there are no taboos. As long as it's done by somebody who has talent and class, I think you can talk about anything.

THR: What's the most surprising pitch you've heard?

Lee: A pitch is an invitation to an invitation to a preparty. You're telling us what an outline might be, and that outline might become a script, and that script might become a pilot, and that pilot might become a series. It's so far away from actually being at the party that the best buyers have to have amazing antennae for whether the party is going to be worth being at. You're picking up the idea and people being pitched and also trying to determine whether these people and ideas will catch fire and be different and surprising.