How ABC Got Its Groove Back (Only Partly Because of Shonda Rhimes)

Paul Lee on 'smart, emotional television' and plans to 'reinvent reality'

ABC has had little reason to smile over the past dreary decade, as it often has found itself bringing up the rear among viewers ages 18-49. Its sole upfront highlight is usually Jimmy Kimmel's annual skewering of the network and its perpetual ratings woes.

But this season, things are finally starting to look up for ABC. The network has pulled itself out of the 18-49 ratings basement it occupied for the past three seasons (it's now in third place, just ahead of Fox), and it's the only broadcast network up season to date in the 18-49 demographic (to a 2.2, from last year's 2.1). Thanks to its mighty, all-Shonda Rhimes TGIT block, Thursdays are at a five-year high in the demo. And its fortified Wednesday comedy block (featuring The Middle, The Goldbergs, Modern Family and Black-ish) is at a three-year high.

While the network canceled the Manhattan Love Story this season, it has also had several freshman hits, including How to Get Away With Murder (already renewed for next year), Black-ish and Fresh Off the Boat, which is doubling the ratings ABC got in the time slot last fall. As the upfronts approach, ABC Entertainment president Paul Lee talked about how the network has reinvented itself—and why its recent success is only partially due to Queen Shonda.

Thank God It's Thursday

Lee's most successful play this season was handing over his Thursday night lineup to Rhimes: Grey's Anatomy and Scandal, both of which she created, and How to Get Away with Murder, which she executive produces. Most critically, he branded the night TGIT (Thank God It's Thursday), an ode to the TGIF Friday night comedy block that was a ratings hit in the '90s.

"We took a brand that my boss Bob Iger invented [in 1989], TGIF, and we burnished it. It was very sweet to take a dormant brand and reinvent it on Thursday as something that was just as fresh today as that was then," said Lee.

But as successful as TGIT has been, Lee isn't sure he can replicate it on another night. "A brand has to match the shows that are there. It has to be extremely high quality. It has to capture the mood of the nation. So it's very difficult," he said. "It takes time to build them, and it takes extraordinary quality and patience."

Brands Beyond Shonda

Despite TGIT's dominance this season, Lee said ABC is much more than just Rhimes. "We love Shonda, and her doing three shows in prime time on one night, and doing them at that level literally at the top of the game, is pretty darn impressive," said Lee. "That being said, obviously we feel we have a huge amount of depth. When you look at the ABC brand, it's actually built not just by TGIT but by Once Upon a Time and by our Wednesday night comedies. And by Dancing [With the Stars] and Castle."

Lee credits ABC's resurgence to a course correction inspired by the success of Modern Family and Grey's Anatomy. "We said, let's build a network of smart, emotional television, and let's encourage our showrunners at a time when least objectionable programming is dead. Let's give them the protection and air cover," he said, citing Rhimes, American Crime's John Ridley, and Once Upon a Time's Adam Horowitz and Eddie Kitsis.

Embracing Diversity

When many of the networks have made strides with diverse programming this season, ABC has had the greatest impact with a trio of hit shows—How to Get Away With Murder, Black-ish and Fresh Off the Boat—featuring minority leads. (A fourth show, the low-rated Cristela, is less likely to return next season.)

"We are going through as much change as a nation demographically as we are technologically. And we felt very strongly that we wanted to reflect America," said Lee. "We've been through a period of political correctness where you don't want to talk about the differences, but I would say, vive la difference! Let's celebrate the culture that we live in.

"So that notion of reflecting the changes in our audience and finding showrunners from all of our audience, not just a part of our audience, we feel is not only releasing more creativity but is part of our relevant brand."

(Story) Size Doesn't Matter

More than any other broadcast network, ABC has embraced limited series this year, like midseason's Secrets & Lies and American Crime. Both are on the bubble for a second season, but if they do return, the shows will likely boast new settings and largely new casts.

"It has been really fun to move into a more mixed economy. To some degree, it's combining my present with my past because at the BBC we really did only the more limited runs," said Lee, who worked at the BBC before becoming BBC America's founder and CEO. "If any show ran longer than eight, it was spectacular! And it's amazing that we are able to unleash the storytelling that you're seeing on American Crime and the talent onscreen and behind the camera to be able to tell different kinds of stories and do them with different rhythms."

Hitting the Wrong Notes on Music Competition

While ABC has figured out a lot this season, it has to go back to the drawing board after two recent failed attempts to crack the music competition reality genre. Last summer, Rising Star met the same grim fate as Duets two summers earlier.

"It will take us a couple of years to go back to the big music competition," said Lee, "but that doesn't mean to say there aren't all sorts of great reality shows that we have that are just a twinkle in our eye now, that we're going to announce [soon] and reinvent reality."