ABC at TCA: What do you mean “death spiral”? Everything at ABC is super awesome!

ABC at TCA: What do you mean “death spiral”? Everything at ABC is super awesome!

Paul Lee, the president of the ABC Entertainment Group, is either an insane super-genius or a completely clueless whackadoo when it comes to the business of television. Similarly, ABC is either in some sort of death spiral that will eventually result in, at best, Lee’s ouster or, at worst, the end of the network as we know it, or it’s right on the edge of really turning things around, one or two more building blocks being all it takes to pull it back from the brink. It’s all a matter of perspective, and it’s all a matter of what you want to believe, really. No broadcast network goes so all in on the idea of perception determining reality as ABC does, and so long as ABC thinks it’s doing well, then it actually is. Hell, the network continues to insist that we should tell you that it’s the number one network on TV if you just don’t count sports, and, look, we just did. (ABC’s argument for this is that it doesn’t broadcast sports. This isn’t strictly true, since it shows Saturday night college football games, but nobody cares about Saturday, so we’ll let it slide. It’s also notable that the network is reportedly pushing for Thursday night football in the current NFL bidding wars, so it’s largely clear that even ABC isn’t buying its own bullshit.)

Here’s the thing: The more positive view of ABC may very well be right. For as many problems as the network has had this fall—and they are legion—it’s still just one or two big hits away from turning everything around and becoming TV’s number one network. Modern Family and Scandal are great building blocks, at least in theory, and the network has a deep bench of things that do pretty well to kind of okay. (Lump into this category the Tuesday night self-starters Marvel’s Agents Of S.H.I.E.L.D. and The Goldbergs, both of which have improved on ABC’s prior performance on the night just enough to let it worry about other things for a while.) But the problem is that ABC has seemed to be on the verge of really breaking through since the fall of 2004, when Lost and Desperate Housewives opened so huge, and it has yet to rise higher than third in its quest for primetime dominance. Some of that is not having sports, a handicap the network would prefer we ignore. But a lot of it is bad schedule management and poor promotion of programming assets.

Nowhere is this more evident than on Wednesday nights, where ABC took a perfectly serviceable lineup from the fall of 2011—The Middle leading into Suburgatory leading into Modern Family leading into Happy Endings leading into Revenge—and kept blowing it up over and over again for seemingly no reason. Some of those moves made sense—replacing Desperate Housewives with Revenge probably would have worked had the latter not creatively imploded exactly when it was moved—but even more of them were simply bizarre tinkering, attempting to find a show that would hold all of Modern Family’s massive audience, instead of just most of it, or moving Suburgatory from a timeslot where it showed consistent numbers because the network panicked about having The Neighbors in the post-Modern Family slot. Now, the network has slotted Suburgatory back at 8:30, but at a much lower level than it was at in its first season because of the random moves, and it continues trying to follow Modern Family with youth-aimed sitcoms, like Super Fun Night and the upcoming Mixology, even though it was evidently unhappy with what Happy Endings posted there, despite it being by far the best hold out of Modern Family in that program’s history. (It wasn’t a very good hold, historically speaking, but in the age of DVRs, “holds” are becoming increasingly antiquated anyway.)

So when Lee appeared before the Television Critics Association winter press tour for his executive session, he seemed almost to be facing a loaded gun. This became even more acute after the network launched two midseason dramas—The Assets and Killer Women—to complete and utter indifference from the audience. (The Assets was quickly yanked; Killer Women will stay on the schedule until it’s replaced by Mind Games in late February, simply because the network doesn’t have anything else to air there between now and then. They can’t all be Shark Tank repeats.) And yet the general theme of the session was… love. Lee loves his shows, even the ones he clearly doesn’t. He “loves” Suburgatory, despite putting it on the bubble last season entirely for creative reasons, then bringing it back at midseason with no promotion. He “loves” Trophy Wife, despite insisting that the show needs to step up its ratings game if it wants to see a season two, a problem that is entirely dependent on him and has nothing to do with the show itself. He “loved” Happy Endings, too, and we all know how that turned out. (In general, I rarely get upset when a network cancels a low-rated show after three or even two seasons of struggle, but ABC’s treatment of Happy Endings was patently bizarre.) And he thinks we’ll really “love” the back nine of Agents Of S.H.I.E.L.D., despite acknowledging that the program has had some rocky steps along the way this season. Also, one of those episodes will star Jaimie Alexander from Thor as Lady Sif.

Lee also said something very telling about watching ratings in the year 2014 around the middle of the session. Network TV ratings now are like the Florida recount in the 2000 presidential election, he said. You look in one day, and one network is up. Look in another day, and another network is up. S.H.I.E.L.D., for instance, posts demo numbers in the 4’s when Live+7 viewership is counted, something that more or less makes sense when one considers the show’s young, male and family audience. But most ratings geeks pay attention solely to live overnights, which include only a tiny fraction of ultimate DVR viewers, and in those numbers, S.H.I.E.L.D. has plunged precipitously. (Again, even at that number, it’s enough of an improvement over what ABC was posting on Tuesdays last year for the network to be happy.) Thus, the network’s “perception is reality” strategy makes a certain amount of sense. If ABC seems like a place where people like to go to watch TV, then maybe it will actually be that. And it’s a strategy that’s paid off, notably, in Scandal, which rode a wave of buzz and availability on streaming services to become one of the network’s biggest shows. (Notably, ABC is trying like hell to replicate the Scandal experience with a number of shows—including, curiously, The Neighbors—with limited success.)

What’s notable about ABC’s struggles that have brought it to this point boils down to two things. The first is just how many of them are self-inflicted. For instance, Lee admitted that Once Upon A Time In Wonderland, originally planned to play in the long midseason gap that takes up the middle of Once Upon A Time’s season, probably should have stayed there. It didn’t work on Thursdays, and it seems likely to be canceled because of it, despite the fact that it likely would have worked had Lee just held it to its original purpose (or, at the very least, would have been less of a disaster). And as far as self-inflicted wounds go, we’ve already discussed that Wednesday night lineup debacle.

But there’s also the fact that ABC isn’t just a TV network anymore. Instead, more than any other broadcast network, it’s one arm of a corporate entertainment octopus. ABC doesn’t count sports, not just because it doesn’t air them, but because its corporate parent apparently made the decision long ago that ESPN was the place where it would air its sports content. Similarly, Agents Of S.H.I.E.L.D. is an ABC show, but only sort of nominally. Deep down, it’s a Marvel show, right down to the possessive in the full version of the title, and that means that it has to uphold certain rigid formulas and creative decisions. That Marvel formula can be enjoyable when it pops up in movie theaters every few months, but as the show has proved, it’s harder to execute on a weekly basis. This same issue will go for inevitable Star Wars and Indiana Jones series, or for the holiday specials the network commissions from Pixar. (A Toy Story Christmas special will join the studio’s Halloween special later this year.) ABC could theoretically languish in fourth forever so long as it provides a place for Disney to place certain elements of content. It’s less a TV network than a part of a larger Voltron entertainment creature.

The worst thing about this is that ABC has a lot of shows that are pretty good to really good. Scandal is having its creative oddnesses right now, but it’s still one of the most vital shows of the moment, and both Trophy Wife and Suburgatory are very good, young comedies. The network also has The Middle and Grey’s Anatomy, longtime stalwarts that keep hitting their numbers and holding things together, and for as much as Modern Family has fallen off a cliff, it’s still a big ratings performer and the reigning comedy series titleholder from the Emmys. (Lee, for his part, expects the show to get a boost in the ratings from syndication come next season. It’s theoretically possible, but it’s starting to seem like that ship has sailed.) And then there are two midseason dramas garnering positive notices in Resurrection—which I haven’t seen but have been told by numerous people I trust is good stuff—and Mind Games—which is Kyle Killen’s attempt to play nice within a procedural format and gains a lot of interesting tension from that. ABC is almost certainly completely falling apart, not on the verge of rediscovering itself, and it’s hard to imagine Lee still in his job come the end of the TV season. But so long as he’s in the big chair, waxing away about how all is love, it’s tempting to hope that maybe—maybe—all those dreams will come true.

Some other ABC notes:

  • Those of you who are fans of the Marvel universe as interpreted by the American Broadcasting Company will be happy to know they have a pilot script for the Agent Carter series. Hayley Atwell is committed to star, and if it goes to series, the show will be run by Michelle Fazekas and Tara Butters, better known as the creators of Reaper.
  • Mind Games, which had been handed a March premiere date initially, will now debut on February 25. One senses ABC would rather have rolled it out sooner, to get Killer Women off the air, but the Olympics would have thrown a wrench in that plan.
  • ABC has also picked up a singing competition called Rising Star, which is a show where you can watch the singer perform and vote for them via an app that will then have your face appear on a giant screen in front of said singer. Once the singer clears a certain bar of the vote (70 percent), then the screen will rise and reveal the live, studio audience. The show is a huge hit in Israel, but it seemed mostly notable to this critic for looking eerily like the reality show in the second episode of Black Mirror. All it needs are little animated avatars for an audience.
  • In response to a question about whether ABC would develop Marvel shows about characters not in the film universe, Lee mostly suggested there were no plans to do so at this time. ABC sees its corporate cousin less as a free research and development department and more as a place it can turn to exploit things that have already kind of worked on movie screens.
  • Dan Fogelman, creator of The Neighbors, and Alan Menken are working on a musical comedy series that will film in England. This may be the best news of the whole tour.
  • When asked whether he was in favor of getting rid of pilot season like Kevin Reilly over at Fox, Paul Lee gave the most Paul Lee answer ever when he said he was a “gradualist,” who wants to gradually move away from pilot season but not get rid of it altogether just yet. He also pointed to the upcoming The Black Box (which looks awful) as an example of a show picked up direct to series. So… maybe… ABC should keep pilot season around for now?
  • In his introductory remarks, Lee all but renewed Agents Of S.H.I.E.L.D. and The Goldbergs, saying he thought they could run for years to come on the network. On the other hand, he also talked about trying out Trophy Wife on Wednesdays “next season,” then later suggested if its ratings performance didn’t improve, it would be canceled, so who can really tell either way?