As new ABC Entertainment Group prexy Paul Lee met with reporters Sunday, the Alphabet remained in full damage control mode.
The elephant in the room wasn’t just imaginary. ABC communications chief Kevin Brockman opened the morning by trotting out a large, stuffed pink elephant doll — before telling critics that questions about former topper Steve McPherson would not be answered.
“We really have nothing more to add,” Brockman said, before repeating the network’s simple statement about McPherson’s exit released last week. Disney and ABC have not responded to ongoing allegations of sexual harassment at the network, even as McPherson’s lawyers have sent out several statements denying the rumors.
The mystery behind McPherson’s exit remained a hot-button subject, however — so much so that ABC told several “non-essential” execs not to show up to the network’s press tour day.
Meanwhile, Lee, in his first public comments since assuming the job over the weekend, did what he could to answer questions put before him.
It worked. Lee seemed to win over the TV critics even if he had nothing of substance to tell them.
“ABC couldn’t have expected a better performance than that,” San Francisco Chronicle critic Tim Goodman wrote via Twitter. “Lee was honest, smart and funny in a difficult scenario.”
Of course, expectations were low. No one honestly expected Lee to address the drama that led to his move to ABC, and no one expected the exec to really have much knowledge about the network’s inner workings.
As a result, the session was a collection of broad, general questions about network TV, Lee’s programming philosophies and the state of ABC. And the answers were even broader. “I’m bullish about the broadcast networks,” Lee said, particularly now that retransmission deals are providing broadcasters, long stuck with just one revenue stream, other sources of income.
The exec said running a broadcast network wasn’t a goal he had in mind as he headed up ABC Family. But when Disney/ABC TV Group topper Anne Sweeney called him with the gig, Lee said he was up to the job.
Lee spent the weekend talking to ABC showrunners and trading phone calls with his new direct reports at the network, while being prepped for his ABC press tour debut.
The biggest immediate change Lee brings to the network may be his close working relationship with Sweeney. Not only was the back-and-forth between McPherson and Sweeney considered icy at best, but issues that arose between the network and its parent company frequently turned into bigger squabbles.
Lee said he was already up to speed on ABC’s new fare, as ABC Family had been working together on cross promotion with its broadcast sister network.
But Lee said he’s under no illusion that the ABC job will be similar to his ABC Family gig (or before that, BBC America, which he helped launch in the States).
“This is a whole new challenge,” he said. “Cable wants to do one thing and do it very well. Broadcast is a much bigger canvas.”
Lee said he doesn’t expect to make any last-minute schedule changes as the net preps its fall launch. “We’re locked and loaded,” he said, noting that making changes can sometimes do “more damage than good.”
Asked what kind of shape ABC is in, Lee didn’t directly answer, but said he believed the network has had “some defining brands over the years and a strong slate coming up… this job is certainly about creating new smart, strong, brand-defining hits. We do have our work cut out for us.”
Discussing his network leadership philosophy, Lee said he trusts research — but to a point.
Lee also quipped that he’ll now have to study ABC’s audience profile, having spent the last six years at ABC Family “trying to channel not just my inner American, but my inner female teen.”
Up next: Lee gets in touch with his inner 18-49 woman. Stay tuned.