Five Things Paul Lee Needs To Know About His New Job

Execs who have made the move from cable to broadcast chief reveal what’s ahead for ABC’s new boss
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Within 36 hours of being on the job as President of ABC
Entertainment Group, Paul Lee had already gotten at least
one thing right: “There’s no question that this is a more difficult job,” he told critics at the TCA
Summer Press Tour Aug. 1.

To be sure, there’s a reason he’s got the
gig. Many of the same abilities and talents
he applied to drive ABC Family
from a seemingly bum, multi-billiondollar
acquisition for The Walt Disney
Co. to a top 10 basic cable network
with a slate of successful original
series are exactly what he needs to
thrive in the broadcast primetime
game. “There are so many of the
same skill sets,” CW Entertainment
President and former Lifetime executive
Dawn Ostroff told B&C. “You’ve
got to be a good manager, you’ve got to
have a vision for the kind of programming
you want, you have to have good
relationships in the community—with
the agents, studio executives, writers
and creative talent. And most importantly,
you need to trust your instincts.”

But still, jumping from ABC Family to
the broadcast mothership won’t be easy.
“Due to the volume, due to the level
of increased profile and scrutiny,
you do go to
drinking
from
the fire hose,” says Fox Entertainment President
Kevin Reilly, a former FX executive.
“That’s something that you can’t really prepare
anyone for.”

Still, B&C decided to try. We canvassed several
top past and present broadcast network
execs with cable backgrounds to identify what
the biggest differences will be for Lee in his
new job.

1. Forget Branding:
It’s the Ratings, Stupid

In cable, branding tends to come first, ratings
second. Broadcast is the opposite, simply because
of how the money flows. “When you run
a cable network, it’s incredibly brand-centric;
first and foremost, you need to take concepts
and run them through your brand filter,” says
Discovery Communications COO Peter Liguori,
who formerly ran Fox Broadcasting and before
that FX. “The reason you do that is in cable, a
great portion of revenue is affiliate revenue and
the value of that brand is in fact how you make
money. But ad revenue is not the primary driver
of that business. So, ratings in an odd way are
somewhat secondary.”

In the broadcast world, despite the networks’
push to get retrans cash, revenue is ad-driven.
“The only way you drive ad rates is by getting
audience,” Liguori adds. “So, [Lee’s] first filter
really is going to be, ‘Can we get the show to
rate?’ and then, ‘Is this an ABC show?’ Clearly,
one will argue he should do both, but it’s where
the priorities are different. Brand first, ratings
second in cable. Ratings first, brand second in
broadcast.”

2. Get on Yer Bike
The British-born Lee acknowledged on the TCA
stage that there’s inherently more time in cable to
get things right. And while he worked in broadcasting
in the U.K., there is literally nothing like
the broadcast cycle in the U.S. Some level of past
experience with the U.S. process is pretty helpful
as a reference point if nothing else. So, insiders
agree, this is the one area where Lee will likely
have to just plain brace himself.

Despite so many attempts to reform the
broadcast production cycle, with moves toward
year-round development, the business is still ingrained
in a cycle built around an upfront. It
makes for far less maneuverability in broadcast
than cable.

Everything comes together at once, Reilly
explains: “You’ve got to mount the shows and
finish and screen and select things under a very
compressed timetable, and then take that lineup
and set a schedule, dealing with all of the components
from management to talent to sales and
press. Then you process it and present that in
the public forum at the upfront.”

But Liguori says some basic cable instincts
tend to translate well to the cycle. “If you like
something in cable, you can dig down deep,
really mine it and try to unearth the very best
show inside that concept,” he says. He adds
that it’s a bigger challenge to do so when you
have 22 hours of broadcast TV to put on, but
“it’s very healthy to migrate that process to
broadcast.”

3. Get Used to the Spotlight. Fast.
Reporters and critics fired away at Lee during
his first press conference, but did so with kid
gloves because of his lack of involvement with ABC’s current lineup. That won’t last. “There’s
not one cable job I’ve ever seen or been in that’s
under such a microscope,” says one insider who
has worked at a high level in broadcast and cable.
“In cable, you get to focus on your creative,
you make the moves you want to make without
100 eyes on top of you, you’re under the radar
of the press. In broadcast, it’s all the opposite.”

As one entertainment chief puts it, in the big
broadcast seat, you find yourself more frequently
in a lose-lose scenario. “It’s more challenging
to be a hero because you back a low-rated
show and everyone says, ‘Why are you backing
a low-rated show?’” the exec says. “You cancel
a critical darling and everyone says, ‘You killed
a brilliant flower.’ That tends to not be the dialogue
in cable. There are different criteria.”

Best advice: deep breaths. And keep people
around you who you can trust and work with
in shorthand.

4. Block Out the Noise
Part of the reason for the amped-up profile in
broadcast is the fact that there are more and bigger
stakeholders in what you do than in any
other job in TV. You will also work constantly
amid the clamor of those voices. Broadcast
primetime is the most prominent place in TV
where producers can become very wealthy, so
the pressures from the community of producers,
agents and studio executives “to keep their
show on the air, to put their show behind the
huge hit is extraordinary,” a network insider
says. “You get none of that in cable.”

“The old adage of following your instincts
gets a little more difficult at times when there’s
more noise in the system, and there’s more noise
in the broadcast system than there is on the cable
side,” Reilly says.

But this is a point where cable is an excellent
training ground, Reilly says. “It does teach you
focus,” he explains. “I believe you’re much more
focused as a system, and your success ratio goes
up when you are committing to a few things.”

5. Delegate, Delegate, Delegate
The most obvious difference between working
in basic cable, even among the most active
original programmers, and running a broadcast
operation is the sheer volume.

FX Networks chief John Landgraf pointed out
in his Aug. 3 executive session at TCA that his
network has the most original programming of
any basic cable net, and he plans to max out at a
dozen shows over the course of any given year.
Landgraf says launching even half that many is
“like a snake digesting a goat” for a basic cable
network.

USA Network also has one of the richest-in originals basic cable schedules, but “running NBC
is like running eight USAs,” as one insider put it,
citing the 22-hour-per-week broadcast schedule.

As a result, this is a job where you need to
depend on your people more and more, and
selecting the right people to work for you is
critical, according to Liguori. And you have to
be a good teacher: “You have to teach people
what you want, what your level of expectations
is, what your taste is.”

Still, the successful leap from cable to broadcast
ultimately is entirely doable, insiders agree.
Says Liguori: “If you have the drive and have the
chops, you will get used to the pace of decisionmaking
that broadcast requires, and you’ll grow
the constitution and fortitude to wake up every
morning and see your report card and learn to
manage that.”

E-mail comments to mgrego@nbmedia.com
and follow her on Twitter: @melissagrego

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