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ABC's Paul Lee reveals the network's inner vixen

January 10, 2012 |  3:02 pm

ABC Entertainment Group President Paul Lee

ABC is embracing its inner bitch.

The network has long been a showcase for raging hormones and feisty women with "Desperate Housewives," "Grey's Anatomy" and more recently "Modern Family."  For years, the network struggled to come up with manly man shows — think "Cavemen"  and "Invasion" — but network executives finally have concluded that cattiness has its benefits.

Still, the network can't say the word "bitch" too loud.

Two of the network's midseason shows started out with the word "bitch" in their titles:  "Good Christian Bitches" and "Don't Trust the Bitch in Apartment 23."  But network executives sanitized the titles before they introduced the shows to advertisers last spring.  

"Good Christian Bitches" became "Good Christian Belles," and then just "GCB."  The latter was renamed a decidedly flat "Apartment 23" before the network restored some of the original sass with "Don't Trust the B---- in Apartment 23."

"On broadcast television, as it turns out, that isn't a word that you want to use in the title," Paul Lee, president of the ABC Entertainment Group, said Tuesday during ABC's executive session at the Television Critics Assn. press tour in Pasadena. 

He acknowledged the marketing challenges, particularly for "GCB," which is based on the book "Good Christian Bitches" by Kim Gatlin and stars Kristin Chenoweth and Annie Potts.  The show, which premieres at 10 p.m. Sunday, March 4, is about a woman with legal problems who returns to her hometown of Dallas to the consternation of her former high school classmates, who are now church mavens.

"'GCB' is a love letter to Texas," Lee said. "This marks the return of the prime-time soap to Dallas."

ABC's session fell on a day when the U.S. Supreme Court was hearing arguments by broadcast networks who are urging the elimination of Federal Communications Commission rules prohibiting expletives on broadcast TV. And ABC has struggled to balance the family-friendly reputation of its corporate parent with shows that would appeal to a younger, more edgy crowd. 

A reporter asked whether the Christian theme was as problematic for the network. Lee explained that the Sunday night show was "pro-religion, but it looks at hypocrisy."

After 18 months on the job, Lee has grown comfortable in the role that he once wore like a too-big suit. The network's performance this fall has helped, as ABC has launched several surprise hits, including "Revenge," a Count of Monte Cristo-inspired tale set in the Hamptons;  the sitcom "Suburgatory"; and the fairy tale-inspired "Once Upon a Time," all of which have helped the network slam the brakes on last season's dramatic ratings slide. And behind a strong performance from the Tim Allen comedy "Last Man Standing," the network has established a beachhead for comedy on Tuesdays.

This was the first full development season for Lee, who launched a string of successful shows that resonated with young female viewers when he ran Disney's ABC Family cable channel for seven years.

Still, ABC needs a broad-based hit to give the network a boost in the ratings.  Its older hits continue to lose steam, including "The Bachelor" and "Dancing With the Stars," and its long-time prime-time tent-pole "Desperate Housewives" ends its eight-year run at the end of the season. 

ABC currently is in second place among viewers, attracting an average 8.6-million viewers a night in prime time, and tied with NBC for third place among viewers ages 18 to 49 that advertisers prefer.  And in a few weeks, NBC will get a enormous ratings lift by airing the Super Bowl, propelling the cellar-dweller network past ABC.

Although "GCB" targets the crowd that flocked to the frisky "Desperate Housewives," the sitcom "Don't Trust the B---- in Apartment 23" is about a young goody-two-shoes who moves into a new apartment building only to find that a wicked brunette lives next door. The show, which joins the lineup in April,  also stars James Van Der Beek, playfully playing himself — an actor who made it big on the WB teen soap "Dawson's Creek."   

ABC is planning to launch the comedy on Wednesday night after its mega-hit "Modern Family."

Parting with television tradition, ABC held back some of its most promising shows for midseason. Lee said the network didn't want to place all its bets in the crowded first few weeks of the TV season when the networks blow through tens of millions of dollars promoting their new shows, only to watch some of them, including ABC's "Charlie's Angels" and NBC's "Playboy Club," crash and burn.

The network is attempting to adopt a year-round schedule, Lee said. It wanted to protect some of its vulnerable newbies by pairing them with strong survivors.

But Lee's ABC won't be all estrogen, suds and snark. 

On Feb. 7, ABC is launching "The River," executive produced by Steven Spielberg, Oren Peli ("Paranormal Activity") and Michael Green ("Sex and the City").  The show — with an eight-episode arc that follows a family in the Amazon searching for its thrill-seeking husband and father who is missing — brings adrenaline and jittery hand-held camera action to the network's prime-time viewing block.

Still searching for a time slot is the Bill Lawrence-executive produced sitcom "Cougar Town," starring Courteney Cox.  Lee praised the guerrilla marketing tactics of Lawrence, who invited critics via a YouTube video to a wine party Monday evening that Lawrence — and not ABC — hosted.  Lee said ABC plans to return "Cougar Town" to the schedule but needs an appropriate launch pad. 
Lee refused to give any hints about the prognosis of ABC's ailing daytime drama "General Hospital."  During the past year, ABC has canceled its other two long-running soaps, "All My Children" and "One Life to Live," replacing them with less expensive lifestyle shows "The Chew" and "The Revolution."

"I am a fan of 'General Hospital,'" Lee said, noting that he began his career working as an assistant director on a Brazilian soap. "But we haven't made a decision."


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Photo: ABC Entertainment Group President Paul Lee.  Credit: ABC