ABC Entertainment Boss Paul Lee Talks Rise of Quality Shows, Brits in Hollywood

Paul Lee - H 2013

"Never underestimate the intelligence of the audience," he tells a U.K. TV industry gathering.

CAMBRIDGE, England – ABC Entertainment Group president Paul Lee said here Thursday that a technological revolution is driving the rise of quality television in the U.S. and said that was a key reason why British talent is so sought-after in the States these days.

One of the most powerful Brits in Hollywood, Lee told the biennial Royal Television Society Cambridge Convention that "the least objectionable TV does not work anymore," even though it used to be a mainstay. Technology has given audiences the ability to choose extraordinary content and "what they love the most." Said Lee: "The only thing that succeeds now is excellence."

Or, in other words: "Never underestimate the intelligence of the audience," Lee said.

That means that originality is even more crucial than ever, he argued, saying that this is a key reason why "British writers, directors and formats have been so valued." They represent "a real stem of quality that American networks are now craving."

The executive, who had success at ABC Family and BBC America, on Thursday also said that he is now spending all day competing with others for U.K. content, even though, he quipped, "I emigrated to get away from British television." Later, during a Q&A, he echoed: "There is a great amount of hunger for British ideas."

He argued that such successful creatives as Joss Whedon, Shonda Rhimes and Aaron Sorkin were using a mix of high-end and low-end material, similar to British stalwarts Monty Python. ?

In comedy, there is "still a profound difference" between the U.S. and the U.K. Modern Family is "deeply funny and deeply sophisticated" and a big success. But Happy Endings got a more mixed reception and was more British in voice because the characters hated each other to some degree, whereas U.S. shows tend to feature characters who fundamentally like each other, Lee argued.

Lee also suggested that the U.S. industry was entering a period where networks can hold on to shows for an extended period as long as they are good, because they also have a life on other platforms beyond TV. ABC did that with Scandal, which became the big hit of the year, he pointed out. Lee said this would benefit serialized show, which have often have been seen as bringing in less money than procedurals. 

Lee showed some clips from upcoming ABC shows, such as Agents of SHIELD and Once Upon a Time in Wonderland, which, he said, use British actors' natural accents now, whereas in the past peopled were forced to speak with American accents. ?

Lee opened his remarks Thursday with a joke about the recent BBC scandal surrounding excessive severance payments. "The real reason I came over was to collect my BBC severance package," he quipped.

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, but I can tell you that these are shows that we love," Lee told reporters gathered for the TCA press tour."]