ABC’s Paul Lee Talks Diversity, Scheduling and Last Season’s Stumbles

Shonda Rhimes and ABC's Paul Lee

The diversity featured in ABC’s upcoming primetime lineup is no accident, ABC Entertainment Group prexy Paul Lee told reporters Tuesday at the Television Critics Assn. press tour.

ABC has a high volume of shows that come from minority creators and showrunners, and shows that deal directly with racial and ethnic experiences, such as comedies “Fresh Off the Boat,” “Cristela” and “Blackish.”

“It is a mission statement to reflect America,” he said. “In a way it’s not so much diversity as it is authenticity.”

Lee emphasized that the shows were picked up on their merits, because they featured “authentic, relatable stories” from solid showrunners such as John Ridley (“American Crime”) and “Shonda Rhimes (“How to Get Away With Murder”).

“We picked them up because they were great television… but they sort of for us unleashed a creative vein that was unmissable. We think these shows are deeply relatable (to broad audiences). When I watch ‘Fresh Off the Boat,’ or ‘Blackish’ or ‘Cristela’ — I am those families,” Lee said. “Great stories about great characters will resonate in the heart and gut anywhere in the world.”

Lee also stressed the importance of having diversity among the creative stewards of ABC’s shows as well as among the network’s exec team.

“To really pull this off, you need not just stars on air, you need the people who are telling the stories to truly reflect America as it is,” he said.

As the discussion turned the question of whether network TV overall has hit a tipping point for reflecting the diversity of the audience, Lee stopped short of declaring it so but said that changes are inevitable. “Shows that seem to lack diversity actually feel dated. America doesn’t look like that any more.”

ABC is coming off a rough season, but Lee was pretty unflappable in deflecting questions about programming and scheduling decisions last year and about the network’s high volume of strike-outs. Yes, critical fave “Trophy Wife” was a disappointment, but Lee indicated that there were not enough signs of growth to warrant a second chance.

“In my job it’s hard when you have good shows that can’t find an audience,” he said.

He accentuated the positive about returning comedy “The Goldbergs,” which is shifting to the Wednesday hammock berth between “The Middle” and “Modern Family” in the fall.

“I personally believe ‘The Goldbergs’ is going to be discovered by a lot more people this year,” Lee said. “We’re very bullish about Wednesday.”

ABC like every other network has been forced to experiment with scheduling patterns. Lee said ABC was taking a page from the cable playbook with plans for bifurcated winter and spring seasons of shows.

“Scandal” will follow that pattern, with the new Viola Davis-Shonda Rhimes drama “How to Get Away With Murder” filling the gap period. Sunday fantasy drama “Once Upon a Time” will take a break at midseason to make room for the offbeat musical comedy “Galavant,” which also mines fairy-tale themes.

Viewers “are now used to watching what you’ve been seeing on cable — complete launch of episodes without a break (for reruns). We’ll give you a fall finale and then a spring premiere,” he said.

In other tidbits from the session:

  • ABC Studios has inked an overall deal with “American Crime” exec producer/showrunner John Ridley, who is also coming off an Oscar win for adapted screenplay for “12 Years a Slave.”
  • He acknowledged that summer reality show “Rising Star” has started slowly but he believes the show has cracked the complexity of live voting on both coasts. “I think you’ll see live voting roll through” the reality TV biz, Lee said.
  • Tunesmith Alan Menken has delivered an impressive songbook for “Galavant” but ABC has yet to finalize a plan for whether tunes from the show will be released on a regular basis a la “Glee.” “Alan Menken is a genius,” Lee enthused.
  • Fielding new multicamera comedies remain a priority for ABC. He called “Cristela” “a great swing toward a contemporary multi-camera sitcom.”


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  1. Stephen says:

    Bill Cosby would roll over in his grave if he heard there was an ABC sitcom called “Blackish.”

  2. Jacques Strappe says:

    Geez, I guess I’m not surprised but it still is alarming reading most of these comments from what I assume are white people threatened by the addition of some ethnic programs to ABC’s schedule. I reserve judgment until I have seen a few episodes of each of these new programs to determine their merit but declaring them bad based solely on their ethnic producers, stars and stories seems pretty straightforward racist to me. This white dude thinks it is admirable and a good business decision on ABC’s part to include ethnic programming in their mix. What year is projected for whites to become a minority in America? Fear not, even at ABC/Disney, whites will still occupy the vast majority of the television landscape. All the other networks are so white you practically need sun glasses just to watch their programming..

    Stumbles from last season were shared among networks. ABC had arguably the strongest Spring compared to the other nets. Since they don’t run NFL games or the Olympics, the Fall and Winter were marginal overall but subtract sports programming from the comparison and their scripted programs were mostly in line with every other net.

    • Jacques, you hit the nail squarely on the head. The media and Hollywood are but a few remaining places where the demographics of America and the white representations presented do not align.

      90% of all the shows, executives and production technicians are white.

  3. Entertain This says:


    Exactly who is the “we” you are referring to in your comment? Nevermind. Obviously, you mean more racist assholes like yourself!

  4. Let’s hope Mr. Lee is using a “disability-inclusive diversity lens” that includes 54 million Americans with disabilities, that generate $220 billion in purchasing power – that’s more than the coveted teen market. A great start would be checking out the 2,288 performers with disabilities who are registered on Actors Access and contacting Inclusion in the Arts in NY. There was a time when ABC was at the top of its disability game long ago when we launched the Media Access Awards and Media Access Office – not so much anymore. ABC can do better to honor the disability pioneering efforts of its founder Leonard Goldenson who also founded United Cerebral Palsy.

  5. Interesting comment, though about 35 years too late. Television is still 90% white. Go figure.

  6. question authority says:

    “…When I watch ‘Fresh Off the Boat,’ or ‘Blackish’ or ‘Cristela’ — I am those families”

    Really? How so, Mr. Oxford Executive?

    Oh, by the way, the ground called. It’d like you to stop running ABC into it.

    Good luck with your bold choices.

    • Jacques Strappe says:

      If you actually read his quote, he referred to the broad appeal of these ethnic comedies which all families, including his can relate to.

  7. Diversity is for REAL LIFE.......Obviously NOT for Television Fairytales says:

    Diversity. Like Person of Interest (CBS) adding Cara Buono to its cast, filming in New York City. Sure. In New York City, everyone is white and beautiful. At least ABC is thinking about diversity and providing some “lip service.” CBS is just getting ……whiter. By the way, here is an early prediction. “Blackish” will fail, epically, because it represents very negative portrayals and self deprecating narrative that is not humorous and is rather, embarrassing. Amos and Andy died long ago……let’s not resurrect them!

  8. hmm says:

    Disney/ABC had a film writing fellowship program for years. Applicants would send scripts, then the writers of the most well received scripts would be declared finalists and invited to a dinner and mixer at Disney. The point of the mixer was supposedly to meet the writers, get to know them better, etc. But the truth is, every year the only writers chosen after that mixer were the minority applicants. Is that diversity or discrimination? And where is that feature program now? Gone. Why? Because it was a failure and didn’t produce any real successes. That’s what happens when people get too hung up on diversity and use it as an excuse to discriminate.

    • Smooth. says:

      White guy?

      • question authority says:

        who cares? people of all backgrounds have enjoyed shows of all types for years. funny is funny. it seems the problem people are having is feeling like they’re being given some kind of lesson by this guy. what he’s missing is the lesson isn’t necessary. people are long past it. america has been growing more and more diverse for generations now. we get it. maybe those who are still hung up on it are the ones defending his all-knowing proclamations. in the end, it’s quite simple — if the new shows are great, they will be watched. if not, not. peace.

    • Thom says:

      Great point and completely agree with you.

  9. Kevin says:

    Every network talks about diversity…yet only people of color are targeted.
    I have yet to see any network reach out to disabled veteran actors and especially if they are caucasian..then they get absolutely no opportunities.

    • Thom says:

      100% agree Kevin.

      Have you seen ‘Fresh Off the Boat,’ or ‘Blackish’ or ‘Cristela’? Cristela is okay, but Fresh and Blackish must have only got picked up because of the “we need diversity” aspect. Writing is stereotypical of the families ethnicity, and the shows main story lines are about being black or Asian and the difficulties that ensue raising your family in white America. Really?? This upsets me and doesn’t lend itself well to the talented black, Asian, hispanic, Indian, etc television writers that are out there writing great material. I wonder what the writers room looks like on these shows…

      How about create a show that doesn’t focus strictly on race, rather focus on good story, character development, humor/drama, etc. That would get the whole world watching, rather than targeting the demographic you need to keep “we aren’t diverse, we are authentic!!”


      • truthisgravey says:

        Real talk Thom. I think the narrative shouldn’t be strictly on the spectrum of race only. Certain aspects of race to tell a story are good, but, everyone is human in this country. Therefore, a lot of good stories, jokes and etc. could come from day to day things that everyone could appeal to. I think a show in the 90s like Fresh Prince of Bel Air touch upon a lot of things in a funny and organic way.

        I wholeheartly agree that the minority talents will be underserve if the roles aren’t available beyond the race/ethnic spectrum. I know it’s a start with these kind of shows, but, I hope talented writers will produce quality works where everyone could enjoy.

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