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Not Just Kid Stuff

Paul Lee has worked on steamy Brazilian novelas and launched the BBC's first American network. But he has never been on this kind of hot seat. As the new president of Disney's cable problem child, ABC Family, Lee needs to find a hit and brand the network.

Disney coughed up $5.2 billion in October 2001 to buy the former Fox Family channel. It doesn't have much to show for it. Rerunning ABC shows didn't work. Then, under former President Angela Shapiro, ABC Family positioned itself as a teen alternative to MTV. That didn't fly. Under both Fox and Disney, the channel has been required to run televangelist Pat Robertson's The 700 Club.

Now Anne Sweeney, the new chief of Disney's non-sports TV empire, is turning to Lee, former CEO of BBC America, to reprogram the place.

There has been some progress. Prime time ratings climbed 32% in the second quarter to an average 925,000 viewers, in line with Comedy Central and HGTV. Off-nets Gilmore Girls and Smallville are coming soon. Still, Lee admits, there is a lot to be done, as he explained to B&C's Allison Romano.

As Fox Family Channel and ABC Family, this network struggled with an identity crisis? How do you fix it?

The job here is to make a family brand that is not a 1950s Waltons throwback or conservative family. It is to make a family brand that really reflects today's families in America, with all their dysfunction and energy and humor. Brands take time to build. When we started BBC America, it was [for] a 52-year-old man called Nigel with a bowler hat. We turned it into a 32-year-old woman.

Who is your target audience?

Our core is 18- to 34-year-olds. We have lots of teens watching, and they are a huge base. We don't want to exclude anybody in the family. Over the next year, we want to build a couple of dramas, comedies and reality shows that speak to that audience.

Because of the channel's distribution deals, you are stuck with the "Family" name. A lot of your target viewers aren't part of a traditional family. How can you work within these constraints?

I don't think "Family" is something we're stuck with. When we launched BBC America, people said we had to jettison the BBC brand and start fresh.

The family brand is a huge opportunity. Here is a piece of people's lives they are very passionate about. Our job is to make that relevant and bring it to life. There isn't anything traditional about The Simpsons or Malcolm in the Middle; they are just great shows. There is nothing traditional about American Idol. The Friends family is a family.

Our job is to take audiences who may not be in the mood for MTV or Fox or The WB and bring them across to us.

What are the archetypal shows on your schedule?

Gilmore Girls and 7th Heaven. These shows took a lot of risks but were bright and attractive and optimistic and dealt with real issues. We are going to look to tell stories with real emotional truth, stories that make you laugh or cry. We're not in the business of taking risks with sex or violence.

At BBC America, you were regarded as more of a marketer and packager. Now you're expected to be a programmer. Are you up for it?

I spent years producing, directing, executive-producing and commissioning shows. I started out as a sort of assistant floor manager in Brazilian novelas. At BBC America, we were a major American co-producer, and the most successful show we did was GroundForce America. So for me this is natural and a lot of fun.

Will we see more interplay with ABC?

Absolutely. This is the future. The fact that Anne Sweeney now oversees all of the assets of Disney means we can sit down in a room and say, "This ABC Family show is great, and why don't tee it off on ABC?" Or it could be taking a project that is not quite right for broadcast but is a great risk for cable and putting it on ABC Family. We've already started having those conversations.

How do you live with Pat Robertson's 700 Club on your network?

It's not unusual for cable channels to have paid programming. As far as I'm concerned, it's not really an issue.

So, what words describe your vision for the network?

We want to be an optimistic and life-enhancing, inclusive network. But we also want it to be a network with energy and surprises.

And what is it now?

We don't have a coordinated brand today. So the biggest challenge is a lack of adjectives.

What does a British TV guy know about what American families want to watch?

You bring the knowledge that there are different ways to do television, like reality, home improvement, quiz shows and even comedy. We faced a lot of problems in the UK 10 years ago and thought out solutions. A lot of cable here is thinking of new ways to do things.

This network has been a hot potato for Fox and Disney. You had a good job at BBC America. Why take this job?

I love startups, and I love rebuilds. That's when you get a chance to make a difference. You don't often get that kind of an opportunity. I wouldn't have dragged my family here if I wasn't getting a chance to be entrepreneurial and build things.