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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.”

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