ABC has gotten its groove back in recent seasons thanks to its stable of series from Shonda Rhimes, as well as several other shows that are connected to its Disney corporate family. The network airs two Marvel shows (Marvel's Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. and Marvel's Agent Carter) and a fairytale series stuffed with characters from famous Disney animated films (Once Upon a Time). And this fall it's reviving another beloved Disney-owned brand, The Muppets.
But ABC Entertainment president Paul Lee says the network isn't just a platform for whatever Disney-related programming corporate overlords want to push out. "Disney has a huge trove of fabulous IP. But it has to be integral to the show," he told reporters at the Television Critics Association's summer press tour in Los Angeles Tuesday.
"We fell in love with The Muppets because it was a new take on the Muppets," and not because of a mandate from Disney, said Lee. Similarly, when the network is developing shows like Once Upon a Time, "corporate doesn't come to us and say, 'please put Snow White in.'"
Before he looked ahead to ABC's fall schedule, Lee celebrated the network's recent resurgence. With new hits like How to Get Away With Murder, Black-ish and Fresh Off the Boat, "we're very happy with the year we had," said Lee. "Incredibly specific voices can be deeply universal."
Even the network's oldest shows have been reinvigorated. As fans reacted to Patrick Dempsey's abrupt exit on Grey's Anatomy last spring, and the unexpected death of his character, Derek Shepherd, "it was great to see Grey's Anatomy so relevant and taking the national conversation in its 11th season," said Lee, who said that show won't miss a beat in Dempsey's absence. "We've seen the pitch for Grey's for next season. The show reinvents itself again.… We have no reason to suspect that it won't go on for many, many years to come."
That momentum continued into the summer, where Celebrity Family Feud unexpectedly became the season's biggest new hit. "We haven't formally picked it up, but we love the show, so you know where it's going," said Lee.
When asked about ABC's new fall new shows, which don't seem to make the same strides in covering and celebrating diversity as last year's crop, Lee said, "we don't have to do with every show the same thing. We always try not to repeat ourselves."
While Lee said "there are some brands that do better by repeating," an obvious reference to CBS' many procedurals and spinoffs, "our brand is driven by innovation of character." He said the network's most successful shows "are not cookie-cutter, they're risk-taking…. What we find has worked in a world of on-demand is passion."
While ABC might be taking more risks than other broadcast networks when it comes to original content, it's not ready to let viewers binge watch an entire season ahead of its linear run, as NBC did with Aquarius. Lee said ABC has no plans to do so, adding, "not that we won't."
Lee also expressed frustration with ABC's inability to monetize its entire audience. "We have more bumps than anyone else from the L3s [live-plus-3-day ratings] and L7s [live-plus-7-day ratings]," he said. "By the way, going to the L35 [live-plus-35-day ratings], our network went up seven and a half percent in L35. Not that we monetize all of those, but we should be doing so."