ABC Family's Paul Lee: "We're in a Glory Period for Dramatic Television"

By Lunch at Michael's Archives
Cover image for  article: ABC Family's Paul Lee: "We're in a Glory Period for Dramatic Television"

Originally Published: April 25, 2005

Paul Lee, president of ABC Family Channel, grew up in London, has jumped off moving freight trains with hobos in Nevada, been in the midst of battle in Belfast, experienced the end of the Cold War at the Winter Palace in Leningrad, and was a director for a top tele-novella in Rio de Janeiro.

Now Paul is on a mission at ABC Family. "People are more passionate about their families than anything else," Paul told me during our lunch at Michael's as Barbara Walters lunched nearby with Peter Price, and as Gerry Byrne, Maury Rogoff, CNBC's Bob Meyer, Nick Verbitsky and Joe Armstrong stopped by to say hello. "I'm on a mission to make great television about today's families that reflect real family passions, dysfunction and diversity; stories that reflect real values and real life with an undercurrent of heart and optimism."

"People are coming to Hollywood from around the world to tell stories on American television," Paul exclaims. "We're in a moment in television when intelligent dramatic story telling is in a glory period and we'll look back at this period of television as being a great time for dramas. I'm privileged to be a part of this period."

ABC Family's slate of original programs for the 2005/2006 season is weighted toward dramas designed to complement "a strong foundation of disciplined, off-network acquisitions" headed by "Gilmore Girls" and "Smallville." With a programming vision that's as diverse as his own experiences, Paul and his team have been responsible for dramatically increasing ABC Family's ratings, and Paul is confident a strategy built around off-network series, original series, and major tent pole events such as "25-Days of Christmas" can establish his network as an industry leader in ratings and brand equity.

It hasn't taken very long for Paul and his family to become acclimated to the U.S. since they moved from London to Washington in 1998 when Paul was named to head the launch of BBC America. Paul has also made a quick adjustment from British-based to American television since joining ABC Family just one year ago.

While the Lee family enjoyed their time in Washington, they are "thrilled" to be in Los Angeles. "The West Coast is open to ideas from anywhere and to people who come from everywhere." Paul laughs about how acclimated he has become to America. "I was watching myself on the network's Upfront tape and I thought 'Oh my God, I DO have an English accent.' I think I sound totally American."

As busy as Paul is at work he "loves being in the popcorn period of my life, watching TV with my kids and 'Desperate Housewives' with my wife." Paul's 11 year-old son "is an eco-warrior and a real wise human with tremendous spirit." His 13-year old son "is totally into sports and especially basketball. Both my boys love it here. They have enough perspective beyond the U.S. but they are Americans." Paul notes that he, like most parents, tries to get to all his son's games. "My dad," he observes, "gave me the tools and support to follow my passions, but I remember him coming to only one of my rugby games and that was typical for all my teammates. Now, we turn up for all the games and kids think we don't care if we're not there. There are so many dynamics in families today; so many stories to tell."

Paul's father, a famed surgeon, had grown up in South Africa and as a child and teen, Paul often visited his grandparents there and he joined his parents on trips to major museums across Europe. He learned to love traveling, and while a student at Oxford he spent several months in Russia, returning years later to produce "Oblomov" for the BBC (starring George Wendt of "Cheers"). He also traveled to Brazil, arranging an interview with leading network Rede Globo through a family contact and "amazingly getting a job as a runner on the 7 PM novella. I was on the floor with a headset getting lines from the director and giving them to the actor. I was speaking Portuguese with a Brit accent and there were some pretty humorous moments."

After a year, Paul returned to London for a job with the BBC and was sent to cover unfolding events in Belfast, where he met Dierdre, his wife of 16 years. The BBC asked him to produce a documentary in the U.S. about folk singer Woody Guthrie, which took him cross-country replicating Guthrie's travels including his life as a hobo riding freight trains. "We got on a freight car in Sacramento and rode the train to Reno. We were waiting for the train to stop, but it only slowed down. We had to jump off with all our equipment." Of all the documentaries he's produced, Paul is most proud of the Guthrie program, which was part of the "Arena" series for which Lee and the BBC won a British Academy Award. "I made a lot of very clever documentaries that I liked at the time, but they haven't survived. The ones that had real emotion are the ones that have survived the test of time and I'm proudest of."

Paul's mission today is for ABC Family to "tell great stories about families that have real emotion and will stand out for their quality and human values" when we look back at this "glory period" for American dramatic television.

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