Paul Lee, president of ABC Entertainment Group, doesn’t give much away during his biannual sitdowns with the Television Critics Association. Not that he’s obligated to: Any executive visits with critics and reporters at press tour are events of spin and course correction, on-message chats in which no one will admit to a failure—but they’ll tout a victory until that victory starts slipping in the ratings. And so it was to some degree of surprise today when Lee began speaking about his network’s 2014-15 lineup in personal terms. “I watch Fresh Off The Boat,” Lee said of the midseason comedy about a child of Taiwanese immigrants growing up in Florida, “and I am that family.” He then reiterated the same point about another new series, Black-ish, and his network’s lone comedy survivor from 2013, The Goldbergs.
Putting aside the fact-checking concern that Lee is but one man and not the nuclear unit that produced celebrity chef Eddie Huang, this feint toward candor is the soundbite that defines ABC’s current programming strategy. The network’s upcoming primetime lineup represents a wider range of perspectives than any of its broadcast competitors, a diversity of faces and voices that calls attention to the lily-white casts and crews who’ve come before the TCA so far this summer. It’s presumed that the success of Scandal has opened ABC to the possibilities of shows centered on women, shows centered on people of color—but now it’s up to Paul Lee to sell that impression. It’s also up to Lee to dispel the notion—one that’s come up previously this TCAs—that TV viewers want their screens to act like a mirror. If there’s any truth to the presumption that people only want to watch shows starring other people that look like them, then Lee’s facing down a fall of extremely splintered viewership.
And so the ABC boss found himself in the catch-22 of any network exec who takes TCA questions about diversity seriously: Is this a priority for ABC? Yes. But is it a higher priority than making TV shows that anyone would want to watch, regardless of gender, race, creed, sexual orientation, or any other factor? That’s the stickier part, and it stuck Lee specifically while talking about The Goldbergs, which was rewarded for its successful first season with a move to ABC’s popular Wednesday-night family-comedy bloc. But as Vulture’s Joe Adalian pointed out to Lee during the executive session, the phrase “bar mitzvah” will be spoken on Black-ish before it’s spoken on the network’s show about a Jewish family. ABC’s working the diversity angle and the post-diversity angle, as emphasized by Selfie creator Emily Kapnek during her show’s session. Within that Pygmalion/My Fair Lady take-off, John Cho’s Henry Higgins-inspired character wasn’t written as an Asian-American man, but then Cho showed up and Kapnek and crew deemed him the right actor for the role. The right actor, the right story—those are the concerns for people working Kapnek’s job. They’re concerns for the big bosses like Lee, too, but diversity is part of the larger picture they’re looking at as well.
But are the shows any good? Like most of the pilots being presented at this press tour, ABC’s new shows have inspired a lot of non-committal shrugging. Questions about diversity in front of and behind the camera have become more common in the TCA ballroom, but in this session with Grand Moff Paul Lee, the fact that diversity was practically the only question makes a promising, conversation-starting slate look a little more like a blank slate. Lee fielded questions about Agents Of S.H.I.E.L.D. and Once Upon A Time, and found room, in separate responses to justify the cancellation of Trophy Wife (never found an audience) and the continued life of Last Man Standing (Lee likes it!). But in this particular instance, a talking point like “I am that family” is just a talking point. It’s an admirable talking point, but if ABC is to go into the next TCA press tour with an improved standing, its new shows will need to move past “I am that family” to “I am that quality show.”
Stay tuned to The A.V. Club for more updates from the Television Critics Association summer press tour, which lasts through July 23. And be sure to follow TV Clubbers Erik Adams, Sonia Saraiya, Myles McNutt, and Will Harris for up-to-the minute commentary on Twitter.
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