NEW YORK (Reuters) - Paul Lee’s performance since he took over as ABC Entertainment Group president in July 2010 gets these evaluations from analysts and other industry observers: “Good solid singles.” “Decent batting average.” “Doing reasonably well.”
Not bad, in other words, but no home runs.
After his first full season atop the network, ABC is essentially in the same position it was in before he got there. Ratings are flat, and the network is still ranked third among broadcast networks, with an average of 8.4 million total weekly viewers, according to Nielsen.
That’s why there is more riding for Lee on this year’s schedule - unveiled at a star-studded presentation featuring Jimmy Kimmel and the cast of “Modern Family” at Lincoln Center in New York on Tuesday - than for perhaps any other network head.
“We felt we had a lot to do when we came in and we’ve been very pleased,” Lee said on a conference call ahead of ABC’s presentation Tuesday.
“We had a good start but we’ve got to keep going and we think we have the shows to do it.”
With a new tagline that asks, “Why just watch when you can feel?” Lee announced 10 new shows - six dramas and four comedies.
Among the dramas are “666 Park Avenue,” about the mysterious happenings in a New York City apartment building, and “Last Resort,” starring Andre Braugher and set on an exotic island after a submarine mission gone awry. Rounding out the new dramas are “Mistresses,” “Nashville,” “Red Widow” and “Zero Hour.”
Comedies include one that Lee said was among his personal favorites, “The Neighbors,” about aliens living next door; “How to Live with Your Parents (For the Rest of Your Life)”; “Malibu Country”; and “The Family Tools.”
“There’s a lot of ambition with this schedule,” Lee said. “We are piling in behind both comedy and drama because we think we have strong development and we want to solidify the success we had this last season.”
Lee, a London-born and Oxford-educated executive without the cockiness so often seen in network heads, was Walt Disney Co Chief Executive Bob Iger’s handpicked successor to lead ABC after the abrupt resignation of Stephen McPherson two years ago.
Lee is considered a rising star in the Magic Kingdom, having turned ABC Family into a top 10 cable network in terms of total viewers during his seven years at the helm.
With the cable network division in ascendance at Disney, Lee’s promotion coincided with that of another cable hitmaker handpicked by Iger: Rich Ross of the Disney Channel, whom the Disney CEO elevated to run the company’s movie studio. However, Ross resigned under pressure in April after failing to translate his cable success into movie blockbusters.
Before joining Disney in 2004, Lee founded the BBC America cable channel in 1998, where his successes included bringing to U.S. audiences the British comedy “The Office,” a show that earned two Golden Globe awards.
Early in his career, Lee worked as a journalist covering the conflict in Northern Ireland.
The schedule Lee inherited when he took charge of ABC included several strong but aging hit shows, among them reality shows “Dancing with the Stars” and “The Bachelor,” and dramas “Grey’s Anatomy” and “Desperate Housewives,” an anchor show that ended its 8-year run Sunday.
He also inherited one new and massive comedy hit, “Modern Family,” which has blossomed into one of TV’s most-watched shows, averaging about 13 million viewers weekly.
“Dancing” remains ABC’s most-watched show, drawing 18 million viewers on average this season, though ratings for the seven-year-old program slipped this year. Lee has ordered an All-Star edition of the popular reality show featuring past contestant favorites for the fall in an attempt to reinvigorate the franchise.
Beyond that, however, there wasn’t much else when Lee came aboard. He had to build a full schedule around those shows, and industry executives and analysts said he did an admirable job of refreshing the lineup with a crop of new hits that leave fewer gaps in the network’s lineup.
“Paul has had good solid singles and built a schedule so he doesn’t have as many huge holes,” a former Disney executive said.
Overall, “they have a decent batting average in the past year,” Wunderlich Securities analyst Matthew Harrigan said.
In a business where shows fail more often than they succeed, six of the 13 freshman programs Lee put on the air last season will return to ABC’s schedule this fall.
Among them are fantasy drama “Once Upon a Time,” which has surprised TV observers by attracting an average of nearly 12 million viewers, or about the same size of the audience for “Grey’s Anatomy,” against very tough competition on Sunday.
Soapy drama “Revenge,” which averaged more than 8 million viewers, and comedy “Suburgatory,” which averaged around 7 million, are both coming back as well. Also renewed were comedies “Last Man Standing” and “Don’t Trust the B—— in Apt. 23,” along with political drama “Scandal.”
Of course, Lee launched some bombs as well. Cross-dressing comedy “Work It” was ravaged by critics and canceled after two episodes.
Kimmel, who hosts ABC’s late-night offering and regularly does a short standup routine during the network’s upfront show, poked fun at Lee for giving the greenlight to “Work It” onstage Tuesday.
“You know we were kidding about that right? That was a joke. The fact that Paul Lee greenlit ‘Work It’ should tell you all you need to know about what British people think of us,” said Kimmel, who mocked Lee’s accent and punctuated his sentences with a playful “pip pip.”
Other duds credited to Lee include a “Charlie’s Angels” reboot that quickly got the ax, the heavily hyped 1960s drama “Pan Am,” paranormal mystery “The River” and comedy “GCB.”
ABC has long ranked third in the ratings behind CBS and News Corp’s FOX in terms of total viewers, with NBC fourth.
“ABC is scraping along, but struggling to get to the network level performance of CBS and Fox,” Morningstar analyst Michael Corty said.
More troubling, however, is the fact that ABC has fallen behind NBC in the 18-to-49-year-old demographic most prized by advertisers. Comcast-owned NBC averages 3.2 million weekly viewers in that category, or about 100,000 more than ABC.
ABC executives argue that NBC is ahead only because it got a lift from the Super Bowl, the most-watched program on television with an audience that heavily skews younger. ABC said it leads NBC by 4 percent in the demographic when the Super Bowl is excluded.
“Certainly, when you take the sports out of it, we are a very strong third behind CBS and FOX and we are going to continue to press the strength we have on the network,” Lee said.
Overall, ABC “has a deeper bench” than NBC, according to Brad Adgate, senior vice president for research at Horizon Media.
“(ABC) doesn’t have a lot of huge hits, but they’ve got a lot of shows doing reasonably well,” he said.
And Lee’s new shows appear to have struck a chord of optimism among media buyers in attendance at Tuesday’s upfront presentation.
“I thought it looked strong,” said one media buyer of ABC’s schedule who asked not to be named because he would be negotiating ad deals with the network. “The show ‘Neighbors’ looked pretty original as well as the midseason show ‘Zero Hour.’”
(This story corrected Jimmy Kimmel quote)
Reporting By Lisa Richwine and Liana Baker; Editing by Peter Lauria, Gary Hill