ABC’s Paul Lee on Diversity, Digital Disruption and ‘Smart-With-Heart’ Branding: Q&A

ABC comes into the upfront this year with renewed swagger.

The Alphabet has posted gains in total viewers and adults 18-49 vs. last season — which is no easy feat as time-shifted viewing grows — but it lodged an even more significant victory with the success of new shows that helped drive the national discussion about diversity in entertainment. ABC Entertainment Group chief Paul Lee spoke with Variety late last month about the network’s performance and ABC’s strategic considerations at a time of upheaval for broadcasters.

Diversity has been the story of the season for the broadcast nets. Did you make a conscious effort to offer programs with more racially and ethnically creative talent, or was it just how your development shaped up this time last year? You’ve fielded three notable successes in “How to Get Away With Murder,” “Black-ish” and Fresh Off the Boat.”

It’s the combination of a number of years work here and focus on consistent themes. It’s wonderful to see them playing out. We have a clear brand, a refocused brand for a broadcast network. We have built consistency and flow into the network and built the schedule brick by brick. We had to find authentic showrunners with passionate voices and let them tell very specific, very authentic stories. Look what Natch (showrunner Nahnatchka Khan) is doing on “Fresh Off the Boat.” Look at “The Goldbergs” and obviously what (showrunners) Kenya (Barris) and Jonathan Groff are doing on “Black-ish.” What we found is this unleashed a huge vein of creativity and the network is benefiting. We’re thrilled to see so many good shows find an audience.

What is ABC’s refocused brand?

This is a smart-with-heart network. “Modern Family” set the tone for us. We felt very passionately we wanted to be a network that was inclusive of many voices. Our audiences are upscale. They watch things when they want to watch them. They are super-passionate and that’s why we see such big bumps live 3 and live 7. … It’s so interesting to look out there and see how much television has changed in the five years since I started. When I started it was currency that procedurals were more valuable than serialized shows. I’m proud of ABC being at the forefront of trying to change that.

You’ve scored in branding Thursday night with three Shonda Rhimes-produced series under the “TGIT” banner. Doesn’t that fly in the face of conventional wisdom that scheduling doesn’t matter when viewers are time-shifting so much?

A modern broadcast network has to be a combination of great old-school scheduling and flow and 21st century skills of buzz and social. Put all those together and add the notion that we wanted to take serialized shows to the next level and try to reinvent them. We wanted to reflect America as it really is and it’s so gratifying to see that find an audience.

We’re starting to see major networks experiment with Netflix-style scheduling techniques of making episodes available, in varying numbers, via streaming and VOD before the linear run. Are you considering anything along those lines for the coming season?

We think long and hard about where that show goes and who we sell it to in digital. Every strategy has to be tailored around the show itself and put on various platforms to enhance the value. We are dealing with some complex, three-dimensional scheduling challenges nowadays. We (may) preview a show before we start. Digital (distribution) has played very, very well for us on the serialized shows that we do. It used to be that if the audience didn’t come through for episode one, you were in trouble. “Scandal” was that show that proved that if you end a season well and people binge on it through digital, they’ve got a way to get on the train now.

Shonda and her team also helped write the template for harnessing social media to drive attention to TV shows. Has that become an institutionalized practice for showrunners and talent at ABC?

Well, you can’t institutionalize anything unless the show is great. What TGIT did was really take it to another level. We encouraged all of our showrunners to watch and to enjoy and be involved in the conversations. Audiences are looking for authentic voices. you have to be as authentic as you can. You want to be out there and accessible in a way that was never the case 20 years ago. I’m fascinated to see how our showrunners take that ball and roll with it. … We have a social department, and they’re experts in knowing that social is not linear; it’s a completely different way of competing. Social is right in front of you — it’s you talking directly to fans and telling those people what’s happening behind the scenes. It also keeps the shows alive through the gap hiatus.

Speaking of those gap periods, how are you able to make the economics work on your short-order shows like “Agent Carter” and “American Crime”?

The gap strategy that seemed very risky when we first did it has proved to be the future for us. The ability for audiences to watch a whole run of the show and then take a pause. The cycle of original, original, repeat may have worked in the 1960s, but in a world where all of your competition are doing full runs, it makes all the sense in the world.

The first year we tried it, it worked great for the shows on hiatus; it didn’t work so well for the gap shows. So this year we looked at how all the shows would work thematically together. It was great to see “Agent Carter” go in there and hold the audience for (“Marvel’s Agents of SHIELD”) and keep it warm for that audience until (“SHIELD”) came back. Overall we’re strategizing this way more and more and we will build again this year.

But isn’t there a risk that you’re spending a lot more on programming overall and on shows with a smaller potential payoff from fewer episodes?

You end up taking different business models from different types of businesses. There’s a very established model for cable and pay TV, and for British shows, to create a business with not as many episodes. With “Agent Carter” we did eight, which is more feasible than six.

Were you disappointed in the turnout for “American Crime”? It got mostly great reviews but the initial viewership has been fairly weak. Is it too gritty for the ABC audience? (“American Crime” was renewed for a second season late Thursday.)

We’re immensely proud of the show. It’s the best show of the season in some respects. It’s just an extraordinary piece of television and storytelling. People are going to be talking about it after the final three episodes air.

You are investing more in ABC Studios operation, bringing more talent on board and the launch of ABC Signature. How important is that to your overall strategy?

We are putting a lot of effort into it. Our studio is run really, really well by (exec VP) Patrick Moran. We put a lot of effort into building those muscles. Look at the strong shows coming out of our studios. We have been very lucky to have a number of shows going that we feel strongly about that we hope we’ll keep for years go come. Look at “Once Upon a Time” reinventing itself every season. Look at the strength of our Shonda shows and a comedy like “Black-ish.”

How do you feel overall going into the upfront? You’ve earned the right to do a victory lap around Lincoln Center this year.

I’m very, very proud of the work my team is doing. There’s a lot of luck in this game — absolutely we got lucky this year. That being said, it makes a difference to advertisers to make promises and deliver. It certainly plays in our favor.

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