Paul Lee Talks ‘Black-ish,’ ‘Fresh Off the Boat’ and Diversity vs. Authenticity

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TCA 2014: ABC entertainment chief owns up to a couple of “very weak” months

ABC entertainment chief Paul Lee owned up to a couple of “very weak” months for his network, and talked about a rebuilding plan built largely around diverse comedies that he says reflect the “authenticity” of America.

Lee spoke Tuesday at the Television Critics Association summer press tour, where at one point he invited reporters to turn around and look at the ABC employees standing in the back of the room, saying they reflected the diversity of America.

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The head of the fourth-place network said the network began making a comeback toward the end of the 2013-14 season.

“We had a very weak January and February and then we came roaring back  in March, April and May,” he said, noting that ABC won its first May sweeps in 14 years.

ABC’s hopes of climbing are built largely around programming that recognizes and celebrates diversity. The network signed a deal Tuesday with “12 Years a Slave” writer John Ridley, and has turned its entire Thursday night lineup to Shonda Rhimes, famous for her colorblind casting. In the fall, it will debut “Black-ish” (pictured), “Fresh Off the Boat” and “Cristela,” which are about African-American, Asian and Latino families, respectively.

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The cynical read is that ABC is trying to expand its demographics as it strives for ratings. But Lee said the network’s goal is to tell honest stories and reflect America.

Lee has said many times that ABC wants writers’ passion projects, and said such projects tend to be specific. “Black-ish,” “Fresh Off the Boat” and “Cristela” are all based at least in part on their creators’ real lives.

“When they come in with real specificity … when they bring you authentic, relatable stories, you really have no other choice than to pick them up,” he said. “When I watch ‘Fresh Off the Boat,’ when I watch ‘Black-ish,’ when I watch ‘Cristela,’ I am one of those families.”

Lee, the British-born head of an American network, noted that he could relate to being an immigrant, like the families in “Fresh Off the Boat” and “Cristela.”

He invited reporters to turn to look at his executives, saying it was just as important to have diverse talent behind the camera as in front of it.