TCA: ABC Chief Paul Lee Celebrates 'Complex' Landscape

Updated: In exec session light on hard news, the network boss embraces diversity and multiplatform
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Related: Complete Coverage of TCA Summer Press Tour

Beverly Hills, Calif. —ABC Entertainment Group president Paul Lee, fresh off a season of ratings progress and venturesome hits, assumed a confident stance during his executive session Tuesday but did not downplay how quickly the marketplace is evolving.

“We’ve actually seen an immense change in the content in the five years that I’ve done the job,” he said. “Five years ago, there were all sorts of rules of broadcast that were written in stone: the racial makeup of the group, the likability of leads, the moral clarity, can you do period drama or non-period drama? ... We are in a world that’s a much more complex world and we’re enjoying it because it gives us the real opportunity to take great risks and make great television.”

The session at the TCA summer press tour was light on hard news, aside from Lee all but guaranteeing a pickup of Celebrity Family Feud. The most forceful comments concerned the ongoing stress on the traditional broadcast model.

Sitting on the same ballroom stage where Amazon and Netflix execs lobbed bricks at old models in recent days, Lee said no plans are under way for ABC to make shows available before linear air, a move NBC and many cable nets have tried. But he was eager to sprinkle in stats attesting to multiplatform strength. Live-plus-35-day ratings, for example, showed that ABC ratings rose 7.5% in 2014-15 (“not that we can monetize that”), and that Shonda Rhimes' TGIT lineup garnered five billion Facebook impressions.

Owning shows produced by ABC Studios offers a crucial third revenue stream to supplement retrans and advertising.

“It allows you an ecosystem where you can truly create those shows and where American Crime, which would not have been made for a broadcast network 10 years ago and which I’d put up against any show on any platform, can be a profitable show for us.”

Reflecting further on the dramatic shifts of recent years, he made the case that time-shifting has to be viewed as a net positive. Interestingly, the session was marked less by talk of which comedy will be plugged into the Wednesday-at-9 timeslot and more by taking stock of the landscape.

“We are in this world of on demand. Not only that, but we are true children of that world,” Lee said. “Scandal became a big hit because we sold it to SVOD. It wasn’t a huge number that first season. And then everybody watched it, everybody binged it over the summer and it came roaring back for the second season. When I started the job, it was written in stone that procedurals were bigger than serialized shows. In an on-demand world, serialized shows can really drive things.”

Diversity is one through-line of all content efforts, Lee said. ABC’s push to develop and promote shows with diverse casts gained broader traction after freshman hits Black-ish and Fresh Off the Boat broke out last season. Lee said the network and its creative partners are actively reaching out to students and families to "be proactive" about diversity on TV. "We want families to look at Fresh Off the Boat or Dr. Ken and say, ‘This is a great career for our kids,’" he said.

Ever the polished Brit, Lee declined to single out any rivals by name, but with momentum in his favor he offered the next best thing to actual smack talk.

“There are some brands that do well by repeating and driving through process,” he said. “Our brand is driven by innovation and character. So for us to really do well, we have to get out of the way or create a structure around strong voices that will allow them to take risks and enjoy themselves.”

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