TCA 2012: ABC's Paul Lee Talks Broad Appeal of New Dramas, Reality Failures and 'Modern Family'

Paul Lee Brigitte Sire P 2011
Brigitte Sire

“Reality is hard because it’s much more difficult now to find the shock of the new," said the network Entertainment Group president, chalking up the network's string of unscripted failures to an over-saturated genre.

ABC Entertainment Group president Paul Lee stayed on message Friday morning at his Television Critics Association session even as reporters peppered him with questions about the continuing skirmish between the cast of Modern Family and studio 20th Century Fox TV that has so far spawned hundreds of headlines and a lawsuit ahead the series’ fourth season.

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The first reporter to come up to bat on Modern Family inquired whether the contract negotiations would delay the show’s anticipated fall launch. Modern Family is set to have a one-hour premiere Wednesday, Sept. 26.

“I expect the season to start on time,” said Lee, tersely. “We’re in the middle of negotiations at the moment and we’re hopeful we’ll be able to resolve it.”

A second reporter took another tack, asking how Lee felt about the ongoing legal disagreement. “We did the table read [on Thursday] and we’re very optimistic," he said. "It’s a wonderful show. They’re a great cast and we’re optimistic about it.”

And: “I really don’t want to talk about the negotiation, but we’re optimistic.”

And finally: “I don’t want to discuss hypotheticals. We’re in negotiations at the moment. We’ll come back to you guys with an answer.”

And that rendered the room full of reporters gathered at the Beverly Hilton mute and the session ended a couple minutes early. Lee held his ground in the post-session scrum, informing reporters who did not get the message that he was not going to talk about the drama swirling around the network’s top-rated show.

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Other highlights:

ABC is still in rebuild mode

With the Super Bowl on NBC last season, ABC finished tied for third with perennial cellar dweller Peacock network. And while ABC renewed six freshman series (Revenge, Suburgatory, Don’t Trust the B---- in Apartment 23, Scandal, Once Upon a Time and Last Man Standing). But there were considerably more failures (Man Up, Work It, The River, Missing, GCB and high-priced Pan Am). “Obviously we have work to do,” said Lee. “We’re in the process of building and these broadcast networks you really have to build every year. You have to add a new block. I think we’ve got some great blocks to build next [season]”

Building blocks...and about The Neighbors

Lee is looking toward returning comedies including Suburgatory, Happy Endings and Apartment 23 to be the network’s comedy building blocks. And he pronounced himself optimistic about the prospects for new comedy The Neighbors, which joins the network’s Wednesday-night lineup after The Middle. The show – about an alien family living in plain sight in the suburbs – has already been derided by critics. “I know there are some issues in the room over the sort of high concept of Neighbors,” allowed Lee. So far, critical brickbats have not been aimed at the network's upcoming dramas. And Lee is looking to the country music soap Nashville and military drama Last Resort as the brightest drama contenders.

Last Resort is for women too

Lee dispelled concerns that Shawn Ryan’s Last Resort – starring Andre Braugher as a submarine commander forced to go rogue when his country seemingly betrays him – may be too testosterone driven for ABC’s majority female audience. He compared Resort to the cross-gender appealing Red October films and noted that Resort “tested as well with women as it did with men." “We watch our research very, very closely. It often gives you important information and sometimes it tells you something you are afraid to know.” Lee pointed to the show’s strong female characters and “emotional punch.” “It was an incredible dial test with both men and women,” he said.

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Country is king

ABC has two country-themed shows coming this fall: the aforementioned Nashville starring Connie Britton as a maturing country music star and Hayden Panettiere as the Eve Harrington upstart she butts heads with; and the fish-out-of-water and less anticipated (by critics) comedy Malibu Country, starring Reba McEntire. The network also airs the CMA Awards, which have grown in popularity in recent years thanks to cross-over stars such as Taylor Swift and Carrie Underwood. Britton and Panettiere both will sing in Nashville. And Lee admitted that he’s a country and folk music fan (he produced a documentary on Woody Guthrie). “Country music is really having its moment,” he said.

Dearth of reality hits

Dancing with the Stars has seen its numbers taper as it’s aged. And the upcoming All Star edition is designed to rejuvenate the franchise. But Lee chalked up ABC’s string of unscripted failures – Duets, Trust Us with Your Life and Glass House – to the glut of shows in the genre. “It’s a mature genre,” he said, adding that he has not made a final decision on the fate of Duets. “Reality is hard because it’s much more difficult now to find the shock of the new. In reality you have your makeover shows, you have your singing competition shows, you have your thrown-off-the-island shows," he said. "I think you just have to execute really well. You have to cast well you have to market well and you have to have a really good twist to get people to come to it.” 

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