How much has the world changed for broadcast networks in the past five years? In discussing the state of ABC at the Television Critics Assn. press tour on Tuesday, ABC Entertainment Group chief Paul Lee noted the vast swings in programming landscape in the half-decade since he took the reins of the Alphabet.
“We’ve actually seen an immense change in the content in the five years that I have done the job,” Lee said. “Five years ago there were all sorts of rules of broadcast that were written in stone, right? The racial makeup of a group, the likeability of leads, the moral clarity, can you do period drama or not period drama, and now we’re in a world where (‘American Crime’s) Felicity Huffman and (‘How to Get Away With Murder’s’) Viola Davis can put in these incredibly morally complex performances, where we can do period, comedies and dramas, where we can really change it.”
Lee also noted that the profit picture for networks has changed with the spread of on-demand viewing. ABC hits a la “Scandal” are “true children of that world,” he said, noting that the SVOD availability of “Scandal” on Netflix was what turned the show into a hit after a low-rated short first season on ABC. “Everybody binge-ed it over the summer and then came roaring back” for season two, he said.
In just a few years’ time, broadcast TV’s revenue base has also gone from being solely dependent on advertising to have the triple stream of retransmission consent coin from MVPDs and a growing base of global content licensing.
“We’re able to monetize, not just in syndication in the U.S, and not just in SVOD in the U.S., but all the way around the world, so that allows us a much richer ability to do so,” he said.
Among other tidbits from the wide-ranging Q&A at the Beverly Hilton:
- The decision to kill off Patrick Dempsey’s Derek Shepherd character on “Grey’s Anatomy” last season was not an easy one but it offers another opportunity for the long-running medical drama to “reinvent itself,” he said. “There’s no reason to expect that ‘Grey’s Anatomy’ won’t go on for many, many years to come.”
- “Celebrity Family Feud” has been a pleasant surprise for the network this season and it’s a slam-dunk for a renewal. “(Host) Steve Harvey is fabulous. He’s having a party on Sunday night on primetime on ABC,” Lee said.
- In Lee’s view, Emmy voters have only one choice in the tough lead drama actress category: “I think Viola Davis should win that Emmy” for her work in “How to Get Away With Murder.”
- Despite the mantra of synergy at Disney, nobody from the corporate office dictates how Mouse House franchises are worked into ABC’s schedule. Marvel-related programming and Disney icons in “Once Upon a Time” are worked up organically as writers and producers have ideas that fit their shows. “Corporate doesn’t come to us and say ‘Please put Snow White in,’ ” he said.
- Lee made special mention of the Cinderella story of “American Crime” co-star Richard Cabral, a former gang member turned actor whose work in the limited series garnered him an Emmy nom. “He was in a gang not many years ago… and he’s going to be joining us at the Emmys in a few weeks’ time,” he said.
- Lee gave a shout-out to Tim Allen sitcom “Last Man Standing,” even as Allen told reporters on Monday that ABC execs were forcing him to hold back on the volume of political humor in the family comedy. “I don’t think Tim in particular and that show in general gets enough credit for bringing a big family audience into Friday night,” Lee said. Pressed about Allen’s comments, Lee feigned surprise: “I look forward to that conversation” with Allen, he said.
- Despite the importance of on-demand viewing to broadcast ratings these days, Lee said the network has no immediate plans to experiment with offering episodes online prior to broadcast premiere.