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ABC’s Paul Lee eyes wider net

Network president speaks to reporters at TCA

ABC Entertainment prexy Paul Lee is anxious to spread the laughs around.

Lee gave an early renewal on Monday to three of the network’s signature comedies — with an eye toward launching a second night of half-hours next season.

“I had a twinkle in my eye that I’d love to see another night of comedy,” Lee told reporters Monday during the Alphabet’s portion of the TV Critics Assn.’s winter press tour. “It’s a good time for comedy at the moment.”

“Modern Family” and “The Middle,” which hold the tentpole positions on ABC’s Wednesday night lineup, were no-brainer renewals. But in giving a greenlight to “Cougar Town” as well, Lee said he foresees an opportunity for that critically acclaimed but still low-rated laffer to help open a night or serve as a tentpole. “In the long term, ‘Cougar Town’ could start an hour, we would love to see that,” he said.

A two-night comedy lineup would rep a nice reversal of fortune for the net from just a few years ago. As recently as 2008, ABC entered fall with just one half-hour on its entire schedule. ABC hopes to add to its laffer wealth on Wednesday with the launch of Matthew Perry starrer “Mr. Sunshine” on Feb. 9.

“We now have two shows (‘Modern Family’ and ‘Middle’) anchoring two hours,” he said. “People wouldn’t have expected that from us a few years ago.”

For now, ABC is getting its feet wet by expanding its comedy footprint later this year to Wednesdays at 10 p.m.

Lee admitted that the move was a risk — but that there was “huge upside” in success. “We know there’s an appetite for comedy at 10,” Lee said. (NBC is trying a similar strategy on Thursdays this midseason.) “If it works, it will pay off dramatically.”

Beyond laffers, dramas “Private Practice,” “Grey’s Anatomy” and “Castle” also landed renewals.

Not on the list yet: “Desperate Housewives,” as ABC Studios is still negotiating new deals with the series stars. (Creator Marc Cherry plans to pull back oversight in the coming years but is already signed on to continue as exec producer.) And Lee was vocal in his support of “Brothers and Sisters” but stopped short of actually giving it a renewal.

None of ABC’s frosh skeins have received a renewal — a reminder that it’s been a rough season so far for the nets.

Meanwhile, Lee also made a case to reporters to recognize ABC as a network that attracts a wider audience. ABC has been seen in recent years as a net that specifically targets femmes with series like “Grey’s Anatomy” and “Dancing With the Stars.” But Lee said he’s looking to attract a range of projects and showrunners to give the sked more balance. “The ABC brand combines smart with heart,” Lee said. “We don’t always live up to it, but at its really best we make culturally defining, big-tent, smart TV. That’s this brand going forward.”

Lee is particularly focused on ABC’s marketing and branding message. As one of his first duties after taking over the network last summer, Lee shuffled the marketing team, leading to the departure of co-head Mike Benson. Since then, he’s taken a much more active role in crafting the ABC marketing message.

“I feel passionate about marketing,” he said. “We compete against powerful scripted shows, against cable, against other media… ABC is a powerful brand but a big one. My job, how we package series and sell the network, is put to the forefront.”

Lee also gave the first formal confirmation of ABC’s two Marvel projects in the works: “AKA Jessica Jones,” penned by Melissa Rosenberg, and “The Incredible Hulk,” to be overseen by Guillermo del Toro. “These are A-list showrunners, which we think is critical if we’re going to bring back a franchise,” he said. “We would love to make a Marvel property work.”

In success, the Marvel properties could then expand to other parts of the Disney empire, he said, such as theme parks.

Later in the day, ABC Family topper Michael Riley announced a second season renewal for “Pretty Little Liars” and a fourth season pickup of “The Secret Life of the American Teenager.”

“Teenager” rates as ABC Family’s No. 1 series of all time and served as the No. 1 scripted cable series with women 18-34 in 2010. “Pretty Little Liars,” meanwhile, just returned for the second half of its freshman year with series highs, including 4.2 million viewers.

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