ABC has changed mainstream television's diversity makeup more than any of its broadcast counterparts in recent years, and executives say the commitment is paying off not just in ratings, but also in quality.
Already seeing success with shows like Scandal, How to Get Away with Murder, Black-ish and Cristela, which star a variety of minority actors and have brought underrepresented perspectives to prime-time, the network will soon add midseason series Fresh off the Boat (prime time's first Asian-American sitcom since Margaret Cho's All American Girl in 1994) and American Crime (created by 12 Years a Slave scriptwriter John Ridley).
"I think it's our job to reflect America," said ABC entertainment president Paul Lee at the Television Critics Association's winter press tour this week. "I really believed from the beginning that the demographic changes in America were just as important to our revolution as the technological changes."
(A skeptic could still point to ABC's dating competition shows like The Bachelor and The Bachelorette, which remain predominantly lily white. "You are going to see diversity as we go through that," vowed Lee, though this wasn't the first year he'd made that promise.)
Creating content that appeals to underserved audiences has helped propel ABC to wins among the vital 18-49 demographic on Wednesdays, Fridays and, most notably, Thursdays, thanks to its TGIT block of Shonda Rhimes-produced shows. It is also the only network with three shows that average more than a 3 rating among those 18-49 (Modern Family, Scandal and How to Get Away with Murder).
"We didn't pick up these shows because they were diverse, we picked them up because they were great," Lee told reporters. "Going to storytellers who come from different groups will unleash a creativity that is really going to resonate. … I'm not going to pick up a show that will help me make a bullet point as I sit in front of you guys."
Lee pointed to American Crime, from 12 Years a Slave writer John Ridley, which he called "one of the most powerful pieces of television I've been associated with in my whole career." Both American Crime (just 11 episodes) and Secrets and Lies (10 episodes) "are in the True Detective mold," said Lee, meaning that they are anthology-style shows that would feature new stories and a largely new cast if they are renewed for a second season.
And even though his job as a broadcast network president is to appeal to as wide an audience as possible, Lee said that can no longer mean programming shows that are aimed at the lowest common denominator. "'Least objectionable television' is dead," said Lee. "We're in a world where passion rules, where social conversation is so important, and where people can watch what they want to watch, where they want to watch it, so they're only going to watch the shows that they really love."
One genre where ABC has found little audience passion is in music competitions, where its shows have drawn only a fraction of the audiences that have flocked to The Voice and American Idol (neither of which is doing as well this season as in the past).
"We have in the glint of our eye, some really cool reality shows for the summer, but they're not singing competitions," said Lee, whose most recent stab at the genre, last summer's Rising Star, averaged a 1.06 rating, even lower than Duets fared two summers earlier (1.2). "I don't think we'll try that for a little bit. I'm sure we'll come back to that in the future."
Unlike some of his broadcast counterparts, Lee has no problem with audiences binge-watching TV content, noting that viewers who binged Scandal on Netflix after its first season "helped turn Scandal into the powerhouse that it is." A decade ago, he pointed out, audiences had a tougher time jumping into prime-time soaps mid-run because there was no way for them to catch up from the beginning; services like Netflix and Amazon Prime now make that possible.
Another key to ABC's resurgence: the fact that so many of its hit shows are produced in-house by ABC Studios (one notable exception being Modern Family, from 20th Century Fox Television). "That's a tremendously important growth engine for us and allows us to really control how we use those shows on multiple platforms and around the world," said Lee. "So that's been critical."