Pasadena, Calif. — Amid strong ratings for freshman series How to Get Away With Murder and Black-ish, ABC Entertainment Group president Paul Lee touted his network’s onscreen diversity Wednesday.
“I think the changes in the demographics in the U.S. are every bit as important a revolution as the technological changes that we’re all going through,” Lee said in his executive session at the TCA winter press tour. “I think it’s our job to reflect America.”
In Nielsen 18-49 ratings, How to Get Away With Murder, featuring African-American actress Viola Davis in the lead and a racially and ethnically diverse cast, has been the best performing new drama of the broadcast season to premiere in the fall; Black-ish, about an African-American family, has been the broadcast season’s highest-rated new comedy. Lee called out Scandal, Cristela and upcoming series Fresh Off the Boat and American Crime as reflecting the network’s commitment to diversity.
He also talked up efforts to build the network’s brand since he took over as entertainment chief in 2010, with diversity as a component of that.
“I think I was very lucky to inherit two shows, Modern Family and Grey’s Anatomy,” Lee said, calling them “contemporary” shows that shared some DNA. “I thought to myself that would be a great way to build out a broad brand that would be inclusive of Americans and have a very clear focus.”
Asked why it has taken so long for broadcast networks to bring as many diverse shows to air as they have this season, Lee said, “Look, Hollywood is often ahead of the curve and often behind the curve. And it’s just wonderful to see us reflect the country now.”
After finishing last season in fourth place in 18-49 Nielsen ratings, ABC currently sits in third, behind NBC and CBS, at the midseason mark. Distribution through digital streaming services has helped the network build audiences, Lee said.
“One of the reasons why serialized dramas have been a good play for us, and they didn’t seem it four or five years ago, was actually that people are able to binge watch our shows when we sell them. We used to sell them to cable. Cable always was much better for procedurals than serialized shows. Now our secondary market is actually the digital market where serialized shows and the ability to binge view a show like Scandal is actually better suited to that market.” The network, Lee added, “may not have tuned Scandal into the powerhouse that it is,” without the ability to binge watch it on digital services.
But ABC has struggled recently in launching new reality series, with new entries The Quest and Rising Star, the latter a singing competition, falling flat last summer. In November, the network parted ways with reality chief Lisa Berger, who exited after only 13 months on the job. Lee said that the network will be announcing its new summer unscripted slate in 4-6 weeks. “They’re not singing competitions, and I don’t think we’ll try that for a little bit.” He added that the network has zeroed in on a candidate to replace Berger, “but I don’t want to comment on Lisa.”
Speaking to reporters after the panel, Lee confirmed that the network is readying a Shark Tank spinoff titled Behind the Tank that would tell the stories of contestants on the core show. “We haven’t scheduled it yet. We could put it in-season, we could put it in summer. It’s probably more likely to be in season.”
Lee also said post-panel that drama Castle will return for another season. “We want to see Castle on the air for many years to come, and it will be coming back.” He added that he was not officially announcing the show’s pick-up.
Other highlights from the session included:
• Asked about a recent New York magazine essay by chef Eddie Huang — whose memoir the upcoming comedy Fresh Off the Boat is inspired by — slamming the series, Lee said, “We love Eddie,” who was scheduled to appear at press tour later in the day to promote the show, but added, “It’s a comedy, and the show itself is not a documentary of his world.”
• Upcoming dramas American Crime and Secrets and Lies are designed to be anthology series if renewed. “They’re both constructed so that in the True Detective mold, we can bring them back,” Lee said. Both crime-based series would feature new crimes and mostly new casts if renewed
• Responding to a question about whether the diversity elsewhere in ABC’s slate would ever be reflected in the Bachelor franchise, which has never featured an African-American star, Lee said “I’m sure many of the future guys are going to be” from more racially diverse backgrounds.