Paul Lee: Next-Gen Adventures in Audience-Building

If running a television network requires a sense of adventure and a good feel for drama, Paul Lee is overqualified.

The president of ABC Family once went hunting in the USSR with AK-47 developer Gen. Mikhail Kalashnikov—the result was an anti-gun documentary—covered the conflict in Northern Ireland for the BBC for three years and helped launch a new network, BBC America.

Lee has been bringing that sense of adventure to ABC Family, where he has served as president since 2004. He's sought to redefine the network's focus by honing in on millennials—the teens and young adults who interact in different ways with media.

“This is the generation that we now all know, but [in 2004] we were just discovering—effortless social networking all the time, they make decisions by consensus, they're optimistic,” says Lee. The plan to draw more millenials worked, as ABC Family bolstered its acquired film lineup and existing brands, while creating original series that appealed to the demographic.

Lee was born in London and grew up in nearby Oxfordshire. He attended Oxford University, where he studied Russian and Portuguese, languages that would serve him well.

Lee's foray in television fiction came in 1983, on a 7 p.m. telenovela in Brazil, where he was traveling after graduation. He worked his way up from intern to production manager and, along the way, found himself thrust into the fire.

“The director wouldn't turn up [one day] and you'd have to direct a scene,” he says. “I don't think that would happen in Hollywood, but it was a great place to learn because they made an hour of television every day. And an hour of television that was watched by 70% of the country.”

In 1984, Lee joined the BBC, where he covered the conflict in Northern Ireland. There he also met his wife, Dierdre.

“When I was a reporter, I was 22 and I had a great ride, but as a documentarian, which I did for four or five years of my life, you were essentially an adventurer. I mean, it really taught you—because effectively it was you, a cameraman, a sound recordist and maybe an assistant—to parachute yourself into Bolivia, the freight trains of the U.S., Moscow, and figure out where you were and what the story was,” he says.

Lee went on to produce documentaries for the network, including a stint on Arena, the legendary BBC documentary series for which he profiled Kalashnikov. “The directors there were the young Turks who were really breaking the rules and making auteur documentaries, which at their best were groundbreaking, fascinating, brilliant,” he says. “At their worst they were kind of pretentious.”

Lee moved up the ranks at the BBC, eventually becoming channel editor for BBC Prime in 1994, before being recruited to move to Washington in 1998. There, he helped launch BBC America, a co-venture with Discovery Communications as its first general manager, eventually becoming CEO.

In 2004, when Disney-ABC television chief Anne Sweeney approached Lee about joining the company's youth-targeted cable channel ABC Family, his sense of adventure and his passion for that audience made him the perfect candidate.

Sweeney recounted having dinner with Lee and his wife before he joined the network. “They are both great adventurers, and if nothing else I want someone with a great sense of adventure to lead the charge for ABC Family,” she says.

Lee's challenge was to build a network with appeal for millennials without abandoning the family heritage that came with the Disney property.

In 2004 ABC Family acquired the off-network rights to Gilmore Girls, 7th Heaven and Smallville, and later movie franchises such as Harry Potter, all of which brought in younger viewers.

Lee also worked to bolster the network's originals. ABC Family's 25 Days of Christmas franchise, a month of original and acquired holiday movies, has grown exponentially during his tenure; 2007 was the highest-rated year in the holiday movie block's 10-year history.

Once new viewers came, Lee realized that fresh original programming would be needed to keep them coming back. As most cable networks do, ABC Family has programmed original scripted series when the broadcast networks are showing reruns. The network debuted its original series Wildfire in June 2005 and it became the highest-rated series in the network's history. Lee went on to oversee the development of Kyle XY the following summer, and Greek the summer after that.

The shows became hits with the target demographic, which Sweeney attributes to Lee's knowledge of the audience. “A meeting doesn't go by when we don't talk about something new that he has discovered about his audience,” she says.

Going forward, Lee wants to expand the network's multiplatform offerings. Greek has already found an online following, allowing visitors to to join a “virtual rush,” and awarding winners with an appearance in a future episode of the show. Games based on Kyle XY and Fallen have also been hits for the network.

Beyond interactive games, Lee says more broadband video distribution is in the network's future. Distributing the shows across the Web has helped the network grow its reach as well. Greek became a hit on iTunes after it debuted last summer, which also helped build the TV audience.

“It grew and grew and grew, so that the finale was our highest-rated 12-34 telecast ever for an original series,” says Lee. “So, it's a virtuous circle.” 

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