Paul Lee, the new president of ABC Entertainment, assumed the hot seat Sunday morning (Aug. 1) at the Television Critics Association press tour. Addressing the media for the first time since the tumultuous departure of his predecessor, Steve McPherson, Lee noted that he was "super unprepared."
"I've been in the job for 36 hours," he said.
Lee, the former president of ABC Family, who was on vacation last week when McPherson abruptly resigned, said Disney-ABC Television Group President Anne Sweeney asked him to address critics at press tour, but he would not directly address questions about McPherson.
"I'm clearly very excited with this opportunity. This is one of the premiere iconic American storytelling brands," said Lee. "I felt honored to be offered the job by Anne. I'm thrilled to do it and I don't want to talk about Steve."
ABC communications chief Kevin Brockman kicked off the network's day by taking the stage with a large, stuffed, pink elephant.
Saying he wanted to start by addressing the "elephant in the room," Brockman told members of the media gathered in the Beverly Hilton ballroom that the network would have nothing to add regarding McPherson's abrupt resignation beyond the statement the network issued last week.
"I realize you may have questions, because that is what you do for a living," Brockman told reporters.
"But to save you some time I will just reiterate that [the] statement still holds. That is the statement we have given. We will give it again if we need to," he continued. "But in the spirit of [productivity] that is all we are going to say. We have nothing to add."
Lee's background has been in cable television - the former president of ABC Family, he got his start as a reporter for the BBC and also launched BBC America. He admitted that broadcast television is a much "bigger canvas" with many more moving parts.
Indeed, the lower ratings expectations in cable allows for more nurturing of programs that are not out-of-the-box hits. On broadcast, the stakes are higher and the pressure is more intense.
"There is no question that this is a more difficult job than running cable because you have more time to stick with things on cable," said Lee. "We are all slaves to ratings and sometimes there is a very small, passionate group that loves a show, but that show will never find a wider audience. In the end, it's about will the show over time grow creatively and have you got the patience to [let it]."
ABC has experienced a ratings slide as its brand-defining hits have aged (Grey's Anatomy,Desperate Housewives) or wrapped (Lost). And while Lee expressed optimism that the success of Modern Family can create "fertile ground" for additional half-hours on the network, he acknowledged that he has his "work cut out for him."
"We have a strong slate coming up," he said. "This job is about creating new, strong, brand-defining hits. So we do have our work cut out for us. But we all do. Every network needs to replenish itself. So yes there's work to do."
Lee said he had already seen ABC's fall pilots by the time he was tapped to take the job and he subsequently reached out to the show runners.
David Zabel, an executive producer of Detroit 1-8-7, one of the network's marquee new dramas, said McPherson's departure "does not change our day-to-day."
Jason Richman, Zabel's co-executive producer, added, "[McPherson] was very supportive and for that I'm grateful. Paul called us and was very supportive as well. So I'm looking forward to the new partnership."
Detroit 1-8-7 is undergoing substantial retooling as producers strip out the documentary aspect of the Detroit-set crime drama in the wake of the shooting death of a 7-year-old during a police raid that was being filmed for the A&E reality series First 48.
The shooting traumatized the city and led to a new rule banning production crews from ride-alongs with law enforcement.
Detroit, said Richman, "oddly became the one city in the country where cameras could not follow police around."
"The credibility of the premise at that point was directly undermined," added Zabel.
But they also admitted there were creative reasons for the change.
"The documentary conceit was interesting and compelling in the pilot," said Zabel. "In the long term we were going to feel hampered and hemmed in by that."
ABC has had difficulty developing police procedurals, a critical genre that performs well in reruns. Noting that each genre has a different business profile (serialized shows sell well internationally, for instance), Lee added, "I'm actually pleased that we have a couple of really good cracks at procedurals."
"And certainly I would not say let's move away from serialized when so many of the brand defining shows on this network have been [serialized dramas.]"
Lee also said there would be no changes to the fall schedule that was set by his predecessor.
"We're locked and loaded here," he said. "We're literally weeks away. [If] you make changes you can do more damage than good."
But Matthew Perry, the star and executive producer of Mr. Sunshine, which is being held for later in the season, seemed to beg to differ.
Perry said he had a phone conversation with "someone very high up" in the ABC organization.
"He told me exactly when we were going to be on and what show we were going to be on after. I do not see him here today," said Perry, adding, "The creative team at ABC is all the same. We're all the same. And I think that independent of work stuff, Paul Lee has become my best friend."
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