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TCA Press Tour 2011: ABC in touch with its softer side, brings back six shows, including 'Grey's Anatomy'

January 10, 2011 |  1:29 pm

Paul Lee is not running away from ABC’s softer, chock-full-of-estrogen side.

ABC’s entertainment president, nearly six months on the job, sent a message Monday that the Walt Disney Co. broadcast network is comfortable with its slate of shows that primarily appeal to women -- “Grey’s Anatomy,” “Dancing With the Stars,” “The Bachelor” and “Desperate Housewives,” although it wanted to take risks with its programming. Lee also indicated that ABC was trying to change its behind-the-scenes, where-the-sausage-is-made culture, which some executives and Hollywood producer/writers known as show-runners have found to be a difficult place to work. 

PaulLeeABC “My real ambition is to make the ABC studio and the ABC network a real show-runner culture,” Lee told nearly 100 writers gathered at the Television Critics Assn. winter press tour at the Langham Huntington hotel in Pasadena.  “Empowered show-runners give networks distinctive voices.  We don’t want cookie-cutter television.”
The network is midway through its pilot development season, a critical exercise to find a new class of shows for the 2011-12 season.  ABC has slipped 11% in key ratings this season as some of its aging programs lose luster, and Disney top brass wants the network to perform better. The network is four months away from putting together its fall 2011 schedule -- the first one that will be shaped primarily by Lee.  The former BBC executive was tapped last summer to run Disney’s largest entertainment channel in the wake of the stormy departure of its longtime chief, Steve McPherson. Before joining ABC, Lee transformed the ABC Family Channel with youth-defining hits like “Pretty Little Liars” and “The Secret Life of the American Teenager.”

ABC announced it had renewed six of its most popular shows, “Grey’s Anatomy,” “Private Practice,” “Modern Family,” “The Middle,” “Cougar Town” and “Castle,” which Lee mentioned as hitting the sweet spot of ABC’s brand.  The network stopped short of announcing the pickup of its prowling “Desperate Housewives.”  Balancing the financial demands of the expensive show with the network’s budget has complicated its return.  “We are not quite there yet,” Lee said of a deal to return the dramedy that has been a network staple for seven seasons.


However, an ABC without its Wisteria Lane suburban divas does seem improbable. Another show that the network still is weighing whether to bring back is “Brothers and Sisters.”

It clearly is the post-McPherson-era at ABC. Rather than struggle to find an action-packed replacement for “Lost” or develop shows that exhibit “Cavemen” tendencies, the British-born Lee gushed that “Dancing With the Stars” was one of his favorite shows and said several times that he had “a twinkle in his eye” in hopefulness for several prospects in development.  That included a new procedural series created by Shonda Rhimes (“Grey’s Anatomy,” “Private Practice”) that focuses on a woman who runs a crisis consultation firm and who has difficulty managing her dysfunctional staff.
But men have not been entirely banished. ABC has had tremendous success with its gender-balanced ensemble sitcom “Modern Family” and has ordered a pilot called “Man Up.”  The single-camera comedy written by Christopher Moynihan, who also stars in the show, centers on a group of men who are in different stages of their relationships and whose stories are told through flashbacks.

There are flashbacks and flash-forwards. Following Disney’s $4-billion acquisition of Marvel Entertainment, the network is tinkering with remakes of a few comic book hero franchises, including the ultimate he-man, “The Hulk,” and one told through the eyes of a woman, “AKA Jessica Jones,” which is being developed by Melissa Rosenberg, who oversaw the “Twilight” franchise. 

“We have a little glint in our eye because we would love to make a Marvel franchise work,” Lee said.

— Meg James

Top photo: Paul Lee, ABC Entertainment president. Photo credit: Angela Weiss/Getty Images.

Bottom photo: "Desperate Housewives." Photo credit: Ron Tom/ABC.