ABC at the TCA winter press tour:  “We have Modern Family, and… Modern Family!”

ABC at the TCA winter press tour:  “We have Modern Family, and… Modern Family!”

ABC boss Paul Lee brings a unique energy to his executive sessions with the Televisions Critics Association. His is not a candid rapport with critics like that of FX’s John Landgraf; speaking with members of the TCA this morning, Lee was more reticent to own up to his network’s recent missteps than his counterpart at Fox, Kevin Reilly. He still has a decent reason to project confidence, though: It may have failed to find a breakout hit in its latest crop of new programs, but ABC is still home to the biggest show on broadcast television, Modern Family. And Paul Lee is eager to remind you that Modern Family airs on ABC, right down to previewing the comedy’s upcoming “Gloria has the baby” episode before taking questions from the critics and reporters assembled in Pasadena. “We have a lot to shout about and we have a lot to do,” Lee said. That “lot to do” seemingly involves finding some shows to shout about that aren’t Modern Family.

It was a rough fall for the four major broadcast outlets, particularly ABC. Last Resort and 666 Park Avenue faded quickly, and an all-star season of Dancing With The Stars fell from that franchise’s typically lofty ratings highs. (“It turns out people like to see bad dancing as much as they do good dancing,” Lee said.) Tentpoles like the network’s Wednesday-night comedy bloc prevented ABC from falling all the way into the basement, but that Dancing With The Stars debacle made a huge dent in its ratings among adults under 50. Ducking questions about the traditional Nielsen metrics, Lee deferred to healthy C3 numbers, the metric by which the Nielsen Company tracks the amount of advertising minutes watched during live broadcasts and the first three days of DVR playback. But if ABC’s shows do as well on DVR as Lee says—and he said they do so well they often swipe significant numbers of live viewers from other ABC shows—doesn’t that mean more viewers zipping through the ads?

That internal competition aside, Lee’s non-Pritchett-Dunphy-Tuker-Delgado-related point of pride is ABC’s brand—and it’s the shows that fall outside of that brand that failed to set the world on fire. The home of Grey’s Anatomy for nearly eight years, the viewers of the network’s dramas skew predominantly female—hence big numbers for Scandal and Once Upon A Time, but not Last Resort or 666 Park Avenue. Its Wednesday-night bloc of family comedies makes for the only true single-camera success story on TV—but Lee and company are having a hard time getting young adults without children to tune into Happy Endings and Don’t Trust The B---- In Apartment 23 on Tuesdays. There’s a dependability and familiarity at play there, which speaks to the way Lee hinted at Malibu Country and Last Man Standing contributing to his network’s “heritage” of Friday-night multi-camera sitcoms. (And as the Internet attests, nothing is as comforting as old TGIF shows.) If that happens to get mom, dad, and the 2.5 kids to tune into Shark Tank as well—arguably the network’s one current hit that doesn’t depend on a formula established almost a decade (or two decades) ago—the ABC boss is all for it.

So where does ABC go from here? According to Lee, he opted to keep Nashville while jettisoning Last Resort and 666 Park Avenue because it was the one new drama where the onscreen relationships connected with the viewers. (It obviously doesn’t hurt that Nashville’s sudsy side puts it in league with the one-two Shonda Rhimes punch of Grey’s Anatomy and Scandal.) But the show rides a distinct demographic split, with Lee citing a strong response from viewers between the ages of 18 to 34, but not ages 35 to 49. Dancing With The Stars used to be a given draw on the older end of that spectrum, but the lackluster response to the all-star season proves that’s no longer a certainty. Lee’s executive session was followed immediately by panels about two shows that step outside the bounds of ABC’s established hits—the Russian-mob thriller Red Widow and the conspiracy-driven adventure Zero Hour—but the fortunes of Last Resort and 666 Park Avenue haven’t set high expectations for either series. A loyalty to certain types of programming gives Paul Lee something to crow about during his biannual appearances before the TCA. If he’s to continue doing so, the challenge lies in getting viewers to show loyalty to different types of programming.

Other notes and tidbits from the Lee session:

  • Not a whole lot of details on Joss Whedon’s S.H.I.E.L.D. series, though Lee appeared visibly (and understandably) enthused to be working with a property that has both a built-in audience and wide-ranging appeal. Prepare for a big marketing push for that one if the pilot goes to series.
  • Double doses of Happy Endings and Don’t Trust The B---- In Apartment 23 don’t necessarily mean ABC is burning the shows off—Lee argued their Sunday-night showings are intended to build further curiosity about the sitcoms, a strategy that could also extend to marathon airings on ABC/Disney’s cable outlets. 
  •  The folks at Disney were apparently surprised that the fairy-tale characters of Once Upon A Time have done so well among adults 18 to 49—which should be no surprise, seeing as the members of that demographic either grew up with the spawn of The Little Mermaid or made a summer tradition of dragging their kids/younger siblings to see such films.
  • Lee sums up his work in the most Bond villian-esque terms possible: “My job is keeping and killing.”
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