It may be awhile before Paul Lee can leave his mark on ABC
If ABC Family chief Paul Lee does end up succeeding Steve McPherson as head of ABC Entertainment, he'll first have to embrace the unknown before being able to put his own stamp on the broadcast network.
ABC's fall lineup is already set, and with the new season less than two months away it's pretty much impossible for Lee to do much tinkering to the schedule or the six new comedies and dramas that will be premiering. New shows include the police drama "Detroit 1-8-7" that is already being reworked, another drama, "No Ordinary Family," as well as the comedy "Better With You" have some good buzz. The network has also ordered several shows for midseason, including comedies "Mr. Sunshine" and "Happy Endings."
The way the television business works, Lee will have the most impact picking projects for the 2011-12 television season, a process that begins later this year and hits full steam early next year -- a period known in the industry as "development hell."
But that doesn't mean Lee can take it easy until then. While McPherson's departure may have to do with more than just the network's performance, Lee will still have to look at the team under him and decide the members' fate. After all, what's the point of bringing in a new coach if he can't also pick his players?
Under McPherson, ABC was known for ambitious programming. He played a key role in the development of "Lost," "Desperate Housewives" and other critically acclaimed dramas. On the comedy front, he championed "Scrubs" and more recently struck gold with "Modern Family."
Those successes though were not enough to make ABC a serious ratings contender. With NBC in a free fall over the last few years, the problems at Walt Disney Co.'s ABC have gone pretty much under the radar. It finished third in viewers and adults 18-49 last season behind CBS and Fox, respectively. Heading into this season, ABC's development was not seen as being as strong as in previous years.
The British-born Lee has had great success revitalizing ABC Family with television shows that are cool enough for teens to watch but don't alienate adults or many advertisers. The network struggled for years and was seen as a bad purchase by Disney when it shelled out more than $5 billion to acquire it in 2001. Now, thanks to programs such as "The Secret Life of the American Teenager" and "Pretty Little Liars," it's a hot cable network.
Given his strategy at ABC Family, don't be surprised if Lee tries to broaden the appeal of ABC's shows. "Lost," "V" and "FlashForward" were critical darlings but hard for mass audiences to grasp, and ultimately the goal of broadcast television is to attract big audiences as opposed to cable networks, which can survive on smaller audiences and niche shows.
Lee will have to adjust to a much faster business when he comes from broadcast to cable. Cable networks develop far fewer shows and hence can spend a lot more time getting everything just right before putting something on the air. Even with the growth in original programming on cable, most networks still count heavily on reruns of broadcast fare and movies to fill their schedules. Now he'll have to cough up more than 20 hours of original shows a week.
But anyone who can make ABC Family seem cool, even with "The 700 Club" still on its schedule, should be able to handle being under a bigger microscope.
-- Joe Flint
Photo: Paul Lee on the set of the ABC Family show "Greek." Credit: Francine Orr/Los Angeles Times.