ABC: Lee Gets Network Laughing Again

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STRATEGY: Protect current hits with consistent scheduling and program new shows season-long, including a new night of comedy.

Jimmy Kimmel gave it to the crowd straight at ABC’s upfront presentation in New York last week when he said the audience of advertisers and media buyers had a gambling problem—a jab at the fact that none of ABC’s new shows from last fall survived the schedule.

But Paul Lee, ABC entertainment group chairman, still held his head high on stage as he stressed the power of ABC’s storytelling and its “culturally defining, aspirational shows.” To be fair, last fall was not Lee’s fault—he took over for the departing Steve McPherson just as the season was about to kick off last year—and the two new ABC shows that did work this year, Body of Proof and Secret Millionaire, were ones Lee moved from fall to midseason.

So in his first upfront slate, Lee programmed a schedule that aims to protect ABC’s existing franchises while creating opportunities to launch new hits season-long, including on a new night of comedy on Tuesdays.

Former Home Improvement star Tim Allen will return to the network in the new half-hour Last Man Standing, anchoring the new block that leads in to the male-targeted Man Up. Lee, who formerly held the top post at ABC Family, wants to use the success of Modern Family to program more family comedies, and he sees the Tuesday shows as appealing to a broader audience than the network’s core female viewership.

When the net’s reality tentpole Dancing With the Stars is off-season, Tuesdays will expand into another hour of comedy, with Cougar Town moving up a night to hold the 9 p.m. hour followed by new odd-couple roommate laffer Apartment 23. Moving Cougar Town up a night also allowed Lee to give this year’s promising midseason entry, Happy Endings, the plum post-Modern Family time slot on Wednesdays this fall. “We think it has huge potential,” Lee said last week of the relationship comedy.

Lee is also moving to make Sundays a destination for scripted dramas; shifting reality anchor Extreme Makeover: Home Edition to Fridays and cancelling Brothers & Sisters made room to launch two of ABC’s more ambitious shows in the night. “I have always felt that Sunday night is a real place for appointment television,” Lee said. He’s hoping to draw viewers in with modern dark fairy tale Once Upon a Time and the 1960s period piece Pan Am, which will sandwich the aging but still successful Desperate Housewives.

Anchoring Thursday night is the rebooted Charlie’s Angels, which Lee calls “pure candy.” The series, which was part of an escapist genre of television alongside shows like Happy Days and The Love Boat when it first ran on ABC in the 1970s, is not the only rookie on ABC’s schedule that has a fairy tale or fantasy aspect to it, which was done somewhat strategically for the current environment. “I think our brand of uplifting entertainment could not be more relevant for this time,” Lee told the upfront audience.

ABC is saving several of its 13 new series for midseason as part of a strategy to have more originals on the network year-round. “I think you can see as much strength in midseason as there is in the fall,” Lee said. It seems the net is betting big on soap Good Christian Belles, which closed ABC’s upfront last week and has been billed as “Desperate Housewives in the South.” Lee said he is eyeing a spring premiere for the series.

With so many new shows launching in the fall, Lee was looking for stability from the rest of ABC’s schedule for its returning series. Monday nights will return intact with Dancing With the Stars leading into Castle, and Body of Proof, Grey’s Anatomy and Private Practice will all return in their current respective time periods.

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