TCA: ABC’s Paul Lee on diversity, TGIT and building nightly ratings domination

ABC Entertainment Group president Paul Lee fielded questions about ABC’s new and returning programming at the Television Critics Association press tour today.

ABC Entertainment Group president Paul Lee
Paul Lee, President, ABC Entertainment Group at the Television Critics Association winter press tour. (ABC/BOB D’AMICO)

Lee’s sit-down was preceded by a few housekeeping announcements. Repeat After Me, the new half-hour reality series inspired by a wildly popular shtick on The Ellen DeGeneres Show will premiere Feb. 17 at 8:30pm. The series will feature The Goldbergs star Wendi McLendon-Covey using a remote earpiece to instruct other famous faces in interactions with everyday folks. Each episodes best moment will be crowned at the end of each episode in front of a live studio audience. Ellen Pompeo, Taye Diggs and American Idol’s Harry Connick Jr. will appear in the premiere episode.

ABC also announced that perennial reality favorite Dancing With the Stars will return March 16 and later Lee revealed that “we have a glint in our eye” about a slate of reality offerings that will premiere in the summer and be unveiled in a month or two.

Lee started the session by touting the network’s successes — a full six of the top 10 broadcast-network dramas, plus ratings-winning Wednesday, Thursday and Friday night lineups, all of which he attributed to ABC’s devotion to establishing series flow and building out entire nights of programming and investment in midseason shows that resonate as much as their fall debuts.

“Our schedulers and programmers did something very special this season, which is that TGIT is really a big cultural phenomenon,” Lee said of the network’s night of back-to-back Shonda Rhimes hits, Grey’s Anatomy, Scandal and How to Get Away With Murder. “We’ve encouraged millions of people to take out wine and popcorn every Thursday night and really enjoy what is water cooler television. And it’s a rather brilliant mix of the very, very new and the very, very old. … It’s a traditional piece of scheduling. What’s not traditional is the billion Facebook impressions that we got for TGIT.”

“As the world fragments more, the ability to have a focused brand is going to be a competitive advantage,” he added.

Lee also cited the network’s desire to represent its viewing audience and America as a whole, with series like How to Get Away with Murder, Cristela, black-ish and the upcoming Fresh Off the Boat. He also offered assurance that the network’s Bachelor/Bachelorette will do a better job of incorporating racial diversity into its cast.

On the new-show front, Lee said he planned to use the network’s NBA coverage to help launch the spooky new political thriller The Whispers from Steven Spielberg’s Amblin TV. The series stars Lily Rabe (American Horror Story), Barry Sloane (Revenge) and Milo Ventimiglia (Heroes).

the whispers abc
THE WHISPERS – “The Whispers” stars Brianna Brown as Lena Lawrence, Kylie Rogers as Minx Lawrence, Barry Sloane as Wes Lawrence, Lily Rabe as Claire Bennigan, Kyle Harrison Breitkopf as Henry, Milo Ventimiglia as John Doe/Drew Bennigan. (ABC/Craig Sjodin)

On March 1, the network will bow its long-awaited whodunit Secrets and Lies from Private Practice’s Barbie Kligman and based on the original Australian series created by Stephen Irwin. The show stars Ryan Phillippe as an adulterous suburbanite suspected of killing his neighbor’s child. Juliette Lewis stars as the hardened detective charged with solving the crimes.

Secrets_And_Lies_Cast
Secrets and Lies (ABC/Bob D’Amico)

Lee called the 10-episode first season a favorite in the ABC offices. “It’s got more secrets. It’s got more lies. More ‘and,’” he joked when asked how the show compared to the Aussie original.

Also debuting in March is American Crime from executive producer John Ridley, who scored a screenwriting Oscar for 12 Years a Slave. Lee calls the drama — which stars Timothy Hutton, Felicity Huffman, Benito Martinez and Penelope Ann Miller as parents whose families are enmeshed in a home invasion murder — “an extraordinary piece to television” and says the Season 1 finale packs “a power punch that I haven’t seen in a long time.”

American Crime
ABC’s “American Crime” stars Richard Cabral as Hector Tontz, Elvis Nolasco as Carter Nix, Caitlin Gerard as Aubry Taylor, Johnny Ortiz as Tony Gutiérrez, Benito Martinez as Alonzo Gutiérrez, Timothy Hutton as Russ Skokie, Felicity Huffman as Barb Hanlon, W. Earl Brown as Tom Carlin and Penelope Ann Miller as Eve Carlin.

Lee said both series hold potential to return with additional seasons featuring new crimes and cast members a la HBO’s True Detective. He noted that the network loves delving into limited-run series that afford them “a different economy” in doling out new series throughout the year and the ability to court fresh storytellers and a wide range of talent to the network.

Fresh Off the Boat ABC
“Fresh Off the Boat” stars Forrest Wheeler as Emery, Ian Chen as Evan, Randall Park as Louis, Hudson Yang as Eddie and Constance Wu as Jessica. (ABC/Kevin Foley)

The network’s new comedy Fresh Off the Boat —coproduced by Eddie Huang, whose memoir inspired the laugher —features the only show currently on TV with an entirely Asian core cast. The show landed opposite CBS’ ratings giant NCIS on the ABC schedule, but Lee believes in its ability to land an audience.

Asked about Huang’s recent remarks that the show didn’t necessarily represent his voice, Lee was unfazed: “We love Eddie. I mean, he’s a firebrand. It’s one of the reasons why we did the show. … It’s a comedy, and the show itself is not a documentary of his book. That being said, it’s a fantastic comedy, and we love Eddie.”

On the returning front, Lee said the struggling Revenge is an important brand for the network and believes there’s plenty of room to retool the show to bring it back to its former glory. He also said Nashville will return with more exciting guest stars, noting that Nashville’s tourism numbers have been boosted by Nashville fans.

He also said there are no plans to swap out Shark Tank‘s sharks. “[We] put a lot of effort into sustaining and building it, and we love all our sharks. … It’s kind of brilliant when you have a show and the very idea of the show is that these are the best negotiators in the world and then you negotiate with them.”

Ultimately, Lee says, it’s his team’s job to bring audiences authentic, original stories that reflect a diverse America. But, he noted, “we didn’t pick up these shows because they were diverse. We picked them up because they were great. … I pick up the shows I think are going to work.”

“Don’t forget, I’m an ex showrunner, writer, director, so I know what it’s like to take notes, and I think I have the best team in television” he concluded.

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Lori just hasn't been the same since "thirtysomething" and "Northern Exposure" went off the air.