Press Tour: ABC president Paul Lee wants ‘smart with heart’

Senior Television Writer
01.10.11 11 Comments


Back in August, Paul Lee appeared at press tour on literally his first official day as president of ABC entertainment. He had had nothing to do with any of the new shows being previewed that day, or the schedule on which they had been placed, or really anything about the network of which he was now in charge. So he mostly sat around and talked about the kinds of programming he enjoyed, and might one day bring to the network. (In my favorite moment, he lamented the fact that “The Middleman” didn’t work out during his tenure at ABC Family.)

Five months later, Lee has actual tenure on the job, has been responsible for canceling some shows (“The Whole Truth”) and the rescheduling of others (postponing the Dana Delany crime drama “Body of Proof” from fall to spring). And today at press tour, he announced the renewal of six ABC series: “Castle,” “Cougar Town,” “Grey’s Anatomy,” “The Middle,” “Modern Family” and “Private Practice.”

But because those shows were, again, all developed and greenlit by his predecessors, and because we’re still many months away from seeing the actual new shows Lee chooses to place on the network, the ABC executive session was still largely devoted to hypotheticals and philosophical questions.

(You can read Fienberg’s exhaustive live-blog of the event here.)

Yes, he gave us concrete info on those six pick-ups – and defended “Cougar Town” when a critic who doesn’t like it kept complaining about its audience fall-off from “Modern Family.” (He even said he hoped it could build enough that they might start an hour with it one day.) And he implied things about the fate of a few other shows: that the network has “ambitions” to renew “Desperate Housewives” but haven’t made a deal yet, that he wished the ratings for “Detroit 1-8-7” were better even though he likes the show (“So very, very proud of ‘1-8-7′”), and that “The Bachelor” is apparently going to live forever and ever and a day.

Mostly, though, he talked about the kind of network he wants ABC, and the kinds of shows he wants to put on it now that he’s actually in charge of development.

As he did last time, Lee was big on talk of branding.

“The ABC brand, as I see it, combines smart with heart,” he said. “And that is a really unusual combination.” We don’t always live up to it, but at our very best, we make culturally-defining, smart, big-tent, aspirational television.”

Once upon a time in Britain, Lee was a showrunner himself, and he said he wants a culture of “empowered showrunners,” because they “Start to give their shows distinctive voices. I think big failures come out of that. You have to be ready to fall on your face, but the brand-defining television comes from that place. We don’t want cookie-cutter television, is I guess where I’m coming from.”

He was asked the familiar question of what shows on other networks he felt fit his brand, and he of course cited “Glee” (which would be a match for the brand of every network save CBS) and “The Good Wife.”

And he seemed excited about the prospects of synergy with new corporate sibling Marvel Comics, as the network is developing new series versions of The Incredible Hulk (produced by Guillermo Del Toro) and superhero-turned-private-eye Jessica Jones (produced by “Twilight” screenwriter Melissa Rosenberg).

But whether those shows get on the air, whether any of the bubble shows survive to next year, whether the idea of comedies at 10 works, and whether Lee is able to execute his vision with new programming remains very much up in the air.

But one thing’s for sure: Lee’s a smart guy, an engaging speaker, and the temperamental opposite of the last man to run ABC.

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