ABC’s Paul Lee at TCA: “The ABC Brand Combines Smart with Heart.”

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Ed Martin Live from TCA - "Special from Jack Myers Media Business Report"

The broadcast portion of the 2011 Winter Television Critics Association tour began yesterday with appearances by three new executives in the ABC hierarchy: Ben Sherwood, President, ABC News; Paul Lee, President, ABC Entertainment Group; and Michael Riley, President, ABC Family.

As expected, the session with Sherwood was the most serious of the three, given the questions about the current and future state of journalism that are top of mind these days, especially in the aftermath of the attempted assassination in Tucson last weekend of U.S. Rep. Gabrielle Giffords that left Giffords and thirteen others injured and six people dead.

Sherwood did something I have seen very few media executives do during press conferences, particularly those at TCA tours. After certain important questions he actually took a few moments to think before giving his answers, briefly leaving the room in silence. One of those questions was about the shameful race-to-be-first reporting of false information by many news outlets including ABC News that followed the shooting of Giffords and others.

“Here’s what happened at ABC News,” Sherwood explained. “This may be news for the newsroom, but I want to explain to you. Our mission is to get it right, and accuracy is the most important thing. And we were very, very close to the facts the whole day. For a brief moment, for about ten minutes, I believe, part of our organization, the website, put up a banner very briefly citing other reports from someplace else that the congresswoman had died, and it came down.

“That reflects one of my challenges at ABC News, which is to bring the organization together into one editorial stream and one editorial voice,” he continued. “For a brief moment, that went up on our website. It did not go out on our airwaves in broadcast. How does that happen? You’ve already seen the apologies and the mea culpa from one organization. And I can just tell you that it really hit me in the heart when I listened to what [Giffords’] family went through, and it’s a reminder that we have to get it right. I’m proud of how ABC News handled it on the broadcast side, and we have to make sure that we’re one voice through the whole organization, united.”

The questions and answers were considerably less serious when Paul Lee took the stage. It came as no surprise last summer that Lee had little to say about any of ABC’s current or upcoming series, given that he had been on the job for about one day at the time. But it was somewhat surprising how little he had to say about the network’s programming six months later, other than to praise ABC’s signature shows, among them Modern Family, Grey’s Anatomy, The Middle, Private Practice, Castle and Cougar Town. (ABC wisely used the occasion of its day at TCA to announce early renewals for those six series, thereby generating some positive news.) Lee also noted that even though Desperate Housewives has not yet been officially renewed, talks are underway. “We have ambitions to pick it up,” he said. “We are not quite there, ready to do so.” Lee also said that no decision has been made regarding the fate of another of the network’s long-running signature shows, Brothers & Sisters.

Lee also emphasized the importance of his network’s brand, something you don’t hear all that much from broadcast executives these days. “The ABC brand, as I see it, really combines smart with heart, and that is a really unusual combination,” Lee said. “We don’t always live up to it. But at its very best, we really make culturally defining, smart, big tent, aspirational television, and that’s how I see this brand and this network going forward into the future.” Lee later gave as examples two shows from other networks that “could fit” ABC’s brand -- FoxGlee and CBSThe Good Wife.

ABC brought only one new series to its day at TCA: Off the Map, a drama about a group of hot young medical professionals working at a medical center in a remote village in South America, from Shonda Rhimes, the executive producer of Grey’s Anatomy and Private Practice. The buzz isn’t particularly strong for this show, but it does boast one of the stronger casts of any new broadcast series this season, including Mamie Gummer (Meryl Streep’s daughter, and a scene stealer in her guest appearances on CBS’ The Good Wife) and Zach Gilford (a stand-out in the outstanding cast of DirecTV/NBC’s Friday Night Lights).

Other than the Map cast, the only other ABC network stars on hand to meet the press during the day were the hosts of Wipeout (and its current midseason incarnation, Winter Wipeout) and a walking big red ball from that series affectionately referred to by ABC’s publicity staff as Ballsy. (A cluster of stars from certain of the network’s midseason offerings were on hand for a brief cocktail party at the end of the day.) The other actors of note who appeared during ABC’s day were the four leads from the ABC Family smash hit Pretty Little Liars --Shay Mitchell, Lucy Hale, Ashley Benson and Troian Bellisario. Sitting through the session for that show, which was moderated by Michael Riley, I couldn’t help but think that a show like Liars would work very well as an 8 o’clock offering on the ABC mother-ship. It wasn’t so long ago that ABC owned the young audience on Friday nights with shows that were as engaging to tweens and teens then as Liars is now.

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