ABC pulled off its best fall launch in years thanks to a mixture of old- and new-school programming strategies.
In his Q&A at the Television Critics Assn. press tour on Wednesday, ABC Entertainment Group chief Paul Lee cited the network’s success in promoting Thursday as a must-watch live night on the back of Shonda Rhimes’ three sudsers and fortifying Wednesday as a night of domestic-themed comedies (“The Middle,” “The Goldbergs,” “Modern Family” and “Black-ish”).
Talk of scheduling victories and improved “audience flow” seems a little antiquated at a moment when network execs are emphasizing the irrelevance of overnight ratings as viewers watch more programs on a time-shifted basis.
But Lee made it clear that ABC is still focused on the meat-and-potatoes business of marketing “branded” nights to viewers looking for shows with common threads. Lee praised ABC’s scheduling and marketing gurus for exercising “the traditional skill of (achieving) audience flow and building out nights.”
The live-ratings success of Thursday’s Shondaland slate — “Grey’s Anatomy,” “Scandal” and “How to Get Away With Murder” — has defied the trend of viewers watching serialized shows in binge fashion on their own timetables. Lee said ABC has harnessed the tidal wave of social-media conversation surrounding the shows to encouraged tweet-along-with-us live viewing.
“TGIT is a big cultural phenomenon,” Lee said. “We’ve encouraged millions of people to take out wine and popcorn really enjoy what is watercooler television. It’s a rather brilliant mix of the very, very new and the very, very old. There’s a sense that it’s an occasion. Let’s sit down and watch this. That’s very traditional, but what’s not traditional is the billion Facebook impressions from the (the TGIT page).
“It’s absolutely the ability of our audience to talk in real time about those shows” that has boosted Thursday, Lee said.
The focus on marketing themed nights has also helped burnish the overall ABC brand. Having that brand reflect distinct types of programming — family comedies, sexy soaps, multigenerational dramas a la “Once Upon a Time” and “Marvel’s Agents of SHIELD” — is important now that digital search recommendations are increasingly important to driving sampling for new shows.
“We’re in a very fragmented world,” Lee said. “As the world fragments more, the ability to have a focused brand is a competitive advantage.”
Sharpening the focus of the brand has been a priority for Lee ever since he arrived at ABC in 2010 after working in cable at ABC Family and BBC America. The brand mantra, of course, is often cited by Disney chief Bob Iger as the company’s guiding principle, and for some time the fuzziness of ABC as a brand unto itself has spurred speculation that the network had become an odd fit within the Disney empire.
Lee cited “Modern Family” and “Grey’s Anatomy” as the shows that were the foundation for marketing ABC as a haven for what he described as “contemporary, high-quality shows.”
“We have more co-viewing (among kids and parents) than the other networks,” Lee said. “That was a great way to build a broad brand that would be inclusive of America. It has allowed us to sit well into the portfolio of Disney brands.”
The other notable trend in ABC’s programming lineup this season has been the range of ethnic and racial diversity on display, not just in casting but in the conceptual focus of shows such as “Black-ish,” “Cristela” and the upcoming “Fresh Off the Boat.”
Lee said that was a byproduct of trying to focus on shows that reflect contemporary America rather than of an affirmative action effort.
“We really believe our mandate is to do shows that resonate and are contemporary,” he said. “I think the changes in demographics in the U.S. are every bit as important a revolution (for television) as the technological revolution.
“It’s our job to reflect America,” he added. “We didn’t pick these shows up because they were diverse. We picked them up because they were great.”
Lee also expressed his enthusiasm for the new model of limited series designed to be rebooted each season with new storylines and cast members. “American Crime,” ABC’s high-profile new entry from “12 Years a Slave’s” John Ridley, is in the “True Detective” mold, as is another midseason drama, “Secrets and Lies.”
“It’s a lot of fun to for us to be playing in the limited-series vein,” he said. “We have a mechanism whereby we can bring them back.”
Lee gave a shout-out to Netflix and other digital platforms that are making serialized shows economically viable for the networks.
“One reason why serialized dramas are a good play for us actually (is that) people are able to binge-watch our shows,” Lee said, not just because of the off-network licensing revenue but also the easy ability for viewers to catch up with storylines. “I would posit that we may not have turned ‘Scandal’ into the powerhouse that it is without the ability of audiences to come in and watch it.”
In other tidbits from the session and post-session huddle, Lee gave a strong indication that “Nashville” will be back for another season despite middling ratings.
ABC has set March 16 as the premiere date for the 10th anniversary season of “Dancing With the Stars.” “America’s Funniest Home Videos” will mark its 25th anniversary with a special on Feb. 15. And “Jimmy Kimmel Live” is heading to Austin, Texas, for five shows starting March 16, which will coincide with the SXSW festival.