Don't envy Paul Lee. The outgoing CEO of BBC America is the new president of troubled ABC Family, Walt Disney Co.'s cable problem child. Disney bought the channel from News Corp in 2001 and is still trying to transform the $5.2 billion investment.
Lee's name popped up as a front-runner after former chief Angela Shapiro was ousted in December. Both Lee and BBC America insisted he was staying put. He was, until Disney came back with an offer he couldn't refuse.
Lee is expected to take the reins in four to six weeks.
The challenges will be waiting at the door. ABC Family has had some success with original movies and holiday specials, but its original series have largely fallen flat. Rerunning The Bachelor
hasn't worked, either. Anne Sweeney, now head of both ABC and Disney's cable group, added ABC Family to her watch last fall and wants a strong lieutenant to work his magic.
Lee is known as a smart marketer and packager. But a big change for him will be ABC's need for original programming. BBC America exists almost exclusively on acquired fare and co-productions. For ABC Family, he will need to find and shepherd original series and specials—a higher-stakes game. He has some experience on the creative side.
Early on, Lee made documentaries for the BBC and later ventured into scripted production, writing and directing made-for-TV movies. Among them: Oblomov, starring Cheers' George Wendt.
During Lee's tenure, BBC America built a loyal, upscale following with imported British shows like What Not To Wear
and Absolutely Fabulous. The channel's buzz hit new levels after BBC comedy The Office, which airs on BBC America, captured a surprise Emmy win. Watching BBC America became as cool as tuning into HBO and MTV.
The London native, who holds an M.A. in modern language from Oxford University, was an architect of BBC America.
As head of BBC's U.K. and international entertainment outlets, Lee developed the network and headed to the U.S. in 1998 to oversee the launch. "He's done a great job branding BBC America," says Universal Television Group Chairman Michael Jackson. "He's taken a green shoot and turned it into a pretty thriving plant."
But rebuilding ABC Family will require a particularly green thumb, cautions Jackson. "The challenge is to take a network with a convoluted history and unclear identity and forge a distinctive approach." Lee's only comment came in the form of a statement: "I plan to continue the development of ABC Family into a strong brand."
Sweeney's vision is to make Family the "bridge" between the kids watching Disney Channel and adults on ABC. It's up to Lee to build it. Then, maybe, viewers will come.
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