Paul Lee’s ABC Exit a Reminder That Network Jobs Aren’t Built to Last

The late Brandon Stoddard, a former president of ABC Entertainment, was once asked why most people who occupy those chairs generally last only four to five years in the job. He wryly replied that such a duration was “roughly the sentence given most white-collar criminals.”

Paul Lee didn’t commit any high crimes, at least that we know of, during his not-quite-six-year stint running ABC Entertainment. But after a number of successes under his leadership, including “Scandal” and “How to Get Away With Murder,” the network did appear to have hit a sort of programming rut, a byproduct of what executives frequently say is the danger of serving in these jobs too long, to the point where you begin ordering variations of the same show over and over again.

Like CBS, which saw longtime chief Nina Tassler step aside in the fall, ABC didn’t look outside its ranks for a replacement. CBS elevated current programming head Glenn Geller, while the Disney-owned network promoted Channing Dungey, its head of drama development. If nothing else, that should ensure a seamless baton pass in terms of the key relationship with mega-producer Shonda Rhimes, who controls a disproportionate swath of ABC’s schedule.

Still, perhaps the best thing that ABC could do, under new management, is seek to break out of that mold, or at least bend it. Because as it stands, lately every new hour the network introduces – even an upcoming biblical epic – seem to be cut from the Shondaland cloth, in the same way CBS has relied too heavily on series that open with a crack team of investigators pacing around a chalk outline.

There is, admittedly, considerable comfort in repetition, which explains why NBC has turned the entire city of Chicago, and virtually every high-stakes career there, into fodder for an episodic drama. About the only thing missing is “Chicago Pet Clinic.”

Yet while that chain-store approach might mitigate risk, it also has a way of limiting the upside, at a time when viewers have more options than ever before. In fact, there’s practically no better demonstration of that than ABC, which was pretty much in the primetime basement in 2004 when the network gambled on two series that helped reverse its fortunes, “Lost” and “Desperate Housewives.”

The old joke is that network executives are the equivalent of “Christmas help,” suggesting that they should never get too attached to their seats. If that sounds a bit uncharitable, it is true that the jobs almost seem to come with an unwritten expiration date, and that it’s the rare personality, like the late Brandon Tartikoff, who can weather the cycles of the TV business for much more than the equivalent of a term in the White House, or perhaps the Senate.

Stoddard, for one, observed that the other Brandon against whom he competed for a time, Tartikoff, was uniquely suited temperamentally to the rigors of running a network. And while that might not have made him a white-collar criminal, it’s a reminder that historically, there are only so many times that an executive can get away with “Murder.”

More TV


    SAG-AFTRA Health Plan Cuts Premiums by 50% Due to Coronavirus Crisis

    The SAG-AFTRA Health Plan has cut 50% from the cost of premiums for the second quarter in response to the coronavirus crisis. SAG-AFTRA members were notified of the reduction on Wednesday via a message from SAG-AFTRA president Gabrielle Carteris and national executive director David White. They said the cuts would cover participants who had been [...]

  • Adam Schlesinger

    Tom Hanks, Rachel Bloom, Stephen Colbert, Stephen King Pay Tribute to Adam Schlesinger

    Whether it was the snarky but sincere pop of Fountains of Wayne and Ivy, the ‘60s retro of Tom Hanks’ “That Thing You Do!” or the Broadway fare of “Crazy Ex-Girlfriend,” Adam Schlesinger’s music reached far beyond his public profile. The master songwriter passed away Wednesday morning at the age of 52 from complications related [...]

  • Aline Brosh Mckenna Adam Schlesinger

    'Crazy Ex-Girlfriend' Co-Creator Aline Brosh McKenna Pays Touching Tribute to Adam Schlesinger

    “Crazy Ex-Girlfriend” co-creator Aline Brosh McKenna paid a touching tribute to Adam Schlesinger on Twitter after the Emmy-winning songwriter and singer died Wednesday from coronavirus complications. Brosh McKenna took to the social media platform to fondly recall a moment from the writer’s room, “One day, when Adam, Rachel (Bloom) and Jack (Dolgen) were working, we [...]

  • Rick and Morty HBO Max

    Adult Swim Announces 'Rick and Morty' Season 4 Return Date

    Adult Swim has announced that the second half of Season 4 of “Rick and Morty” will premiere on May 3 at 11:30 p.m. The announcement was made today alongside a new trailer for the season’s remaining five episodes. Set to the upbeat chant of Thin Lizzy’s “The Boys Are Back in Town,” the footage offers [...]

  • Jason Kilar

    New WarnerMedia CEO Jason Kilar on His Vision for the Future of Media

    By tapping Jason Kilar — the co-founder of Hulu and an Amazon veteran — to be its new CEO, AT&T-owned WarnerMedia is sending a signal that its future will be streamed. In a conversation with Variety just hours after the announcement, Kilar himself says as much. Kilar has known AT&T COO and current WarnerMedia CEO [...]

More From Our Brands

Access exclusive content