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ABC’s Paul Lee pushes the brand

Mike Benson out in marketing shakeup

Paul Lee brought the BBC to the U.S. and turned ABC Family into a destination for millennials.

Now, Lee is taking a whack at the ABC brand.

Lee’s move to shake up the Alphabet’s marketing team last week — leading to the departure of department co-head Mike Benson — provided some insight into the exec’s first order of business as ABC Entertainment prexy.

While Lee’s success will ultimately be determined by the

network’s next generation of shows, he’ll be measured for starters on how he pulls off an overhaul of the network’s image.

“At this point in our progress, my priority is our marketing effort, specifically taking it in a new direction,” Lee wrote in a memo to staffers. “Effective immediately, and for the foreseeable future, I will take a more active role in overseeing the strategic direction of the group.”

Lee appears to be following the strategy he employed upon taking over ABC Family in 2004. The exec first put in place a branding mantra — becoming a destination for the young female Gen-Y crowd — and then shifted ABC Family’s programming that direction with shows like “Kyle XY.”

At ABC, Lee faces a much bigger challenge. BBC America was brand new, and ABC Family, which Disney acquired in 2001, was a virtual startup when he arrived.

Altering a major broadcast network won’t be nearly as easy; after all, the conventional wisdom held by some industry vets is that broadcast nets, by their very nature, aren’t supposed to have brands. But as network viewership erodes, that has changed: Fox has always had an edgy, unconventional brand, while CBS has taken on more of a brand (populist comedy and drama fare) over the years. And NBC just recently went through a major exercise as it looks to define its own Peacock brand.

Whatever brand Lee morphs the network into will then help inform the direction the Alphabet takes come pilot season, when the exec starts planning his first official fall sked.

While it will take time for Lee to make his mark on the programming side — development has just started for the 2011-12 TV season — rivals noted that marketing is one area where execs can make some immediate changes.

And ABC could use a fresh coat of paint. The network was riding high in the mid-2000s thanks to its mix of femme-centric dramas like “Desperate Housewives” and “Grey’s Anatomy” as well as the genre sensation “Lost.” But the network got dinged after overdosing on female-driven hourlongs and launching too many sci-fi dramas that couldn’t recapture the success of “Lost.”

Since then, ABC has found new success in the family comedy “Modern Family” and finally has a decent procedural drama in place with “Castle” — but that also means ABC’s brand has become a bit less clear.

Despite Lee’s arrival, timing of Benson’s exit — just a week before the fall launch — took the industry by surprise on Friday.

“It’s shocking that this moment in time they would jettison someone so senior,” one rival said.

Benson is also a well-liked and well-respected marketing exec, and his exit wasn’t on anyone’s radar.

But the marketing shakeup comes as rivals confirmed that awareness and intent-to-view tracking on ABC’s new shows is lower than for the other nets. Some of that can be blamed on the sheer number of new series the Alphabet is launching this fall.

ABC has also taken knocks for the campaigns behind its two series priorities, “No Ordinary Family” and “My Generation.”

The concept behind “My Generation,” which fast forwards between 2010 and 2000, has been a challenge to pull off in ads, while the “No Ordinary Family” campaign, which has emphasized comicbook themes and downplayed star Michael Chiklis, has been criticized.

With Benson departing, Lee will also rely on Marla Provencio, who shared the title of exec VP of marketing with Benson, to keep the department running.

Don’t expect to see an immediate shift in ABC’s fall campaign; most of those blurbs are already in the marketplace and were locked in months ago, under the oversight of then-ABC Entertainment prexy Steve McPherson.

As for Benson, the exec earned high marks over his 12 years at ABC, for campaigns behind shows like “Desperate Housewives,” “Dancing with the Stars,” “Lost” and last season’s “Modern Family.” Benson had headed marketing for the net with Provencio for the past 3 1/2 years. His exit follows the shuffle at the top last month when McPherson was replaced by Lee. Earlier this month, longtime ABC News head David Westin announced his resignation.

An ABC rep said Benson would stick around for a transition period through the immediate fall launch period.

Benson signed on with ABC in June 1998 as senior veep of advertising and promotion. Before joining ABC, Benson worked in promotion and program planning for MTV and VH1. He also held various exec posts at CBS O&Os in Los Angeles and Minneapolis.

(Cynthia Littleton contributed to this report.)

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