ABC’s Paul Lee to Curious TCA: ‘I’m Super-Unprepared’

New ABC president is short on specifics, touts broad plans to develop “brand-defining shows,” promises few if any tweaks to the fall schedule

Last Updated: August 5, 2011 @ 3:32 PM

It's been quite a week for Paul Lee, so you'll forgive him if he's short on the specifics.

The new ABC entertainment president faced a grilling Sunday morning from curious television journalists at TCA just three days after accepting the job.

The journos wanted specifics: Just where was he when ABC/Disney TV group chief Anne Sweeney called? What was his reaction when he was offered the job?  What does he plan to do with the network?

And has he spoken to predecessor Steve McPherson, who resigned suddenly under a cloud of rumor last week?

Speaking in broad tones about finding "brand-defining" hits for the network, the former ABC Family chief wasn't yet armed with a lot detailed plans about what he'll do in his new job.

"This is one of the premiere iconic storytelling brands, but I am super unprepared," noted Lee, who said he was vacationing at an undisclosed beach location "up north" when Sweeney called him last week. "I've been on the job 36 hours. I'm looking forward to rolling my sleeves up and getting to work."

Lee said he'd seen all of ABC's pilots. "ABC Family is in the business of promoting the fall schedule for ABC, so we know all those shows," he said.

With the fall launch a little over a month away, however, Lee said he has no plans to make significant changes to the new schedule.

"We're locked and loaded here," he said. "We're literally weeks away. You can make more damage than good at this point."

As for discussion about his controversial predecessor, well, Lee nipped that talk right in the bud: "I don't want to talk about Steve," he said.

He conceded that jumping from a niche cable network to a broadcast channel was a significant leap.

“On ABC Family, we went out of our way to target a millennial audience, and this is an 18-49 core demo,” he said. However, having spent the last dozen years in the U.S., where also worked for BBC America, the British native said his cumulative experience has prepared him for the top programming post for platform targeting a mass audience.

For example, he said working for the BBC prepared him for the higher volume development slate he’ll be charged with running a broadcast network.

“We had to develop a ridiculous amount of shows on the BBC because nothing lasts longer than 12 episodes,” he noted.

In terms of addressing specific components of the ABC schedule, Lee did little beyond flatter “Modern Family” – “the best comedy on television,” he called it.

One TV writer kicked the tires on the network’s new super-hero-themed “No Ordinary Family,” which has been the source of derision among some critics at TCA.

“This is a family show, and there are entry points for everyone,” noted Lee, who vowed to “defend his predecessor” and his creative decisions.

What about a second night of comedy?

“We would love to launch a second night, but it’s far too early,” Lee responded.

With several critics noting they were still sore about what they thought was McPherson's too-quick decision to cancel struggling shows including "Better Off Ted" and "Happy Town," Lee was asked if he would be more patient.

Don't count on that.

"Lets face it," he noted, "we're all slaves to ratings."

The new ABC entertainment chief – who said he’s still wrangling with his wife over his decision to take on the big job – spoke often and broadly of the need to develop “brand-defining” shows.

\Sure, that’s always the goal in the niche-audience world of cable. But how does that work on broadcast television, he was asked.

“The reality is these broadcast networks are much broader tents,” he said, “but that’s not to say Fox doesn’t have an identity, or CBS doesn’t have an identity or ABC doesn’t have one.”

As for just what definition he wants for the ABC brand … well, again, Lee said he needed a little time to figure that out.

“We’re really going to have to sit down and figure out what we’re going to do,” he noted.

Previously: "ABC and the 'Elephant in the Room' — McPherson"