In One of His Last Interviews as ABC Entertainment Chief, Paul Lee Said He Loves ‘Taking Risks’

Sat down with Adweek last month, before resigning today

In an OMG twist that wouldn't seem out of place on one of ABC's TGIT dramas, Paul Lee abruptly resigned as ABC Entertainment president today and was replaced by Channing Dungey.

The move was unexpected—Lee was already looking ahead to next season when he sat with Adweek last month for what turned out to be one of his final interviews as entertainment chief at the network. "I love taking risks … and sometimes we fall on our faces," Lee said, as he touched on his legacy at ABC. "You build networks … not over a season but over a course of years."

In excerpts from that interview, which was going to be published later this season, Lee talked about ABC's success in making family comedies, the network's "bizarrely advertiser-friendly" content and the recent series he fought to get on the air.

Adweek: ABC is the only broadcast network that still makes hit family comedies. What are you doing right that everyone else is doing wrong?
Paul Lee: In the end, it's all about voices. I inherited Modern Family, but it gave us a glimpse at how you could reinvent family comedy as a single cam with an incredibly smart combination of humor and heart. And heart is much more at the center of our brand than most of our competitors. It's what defines us. So that certainly shone a light where we could go.

But then you have to find incredibly specific, authentic voices. You take [The Goldbergs creator] Adam Goldberg; you take DeAnn [Heline] and Eileen [Heisler, the creators of The Middle]; you take Kenya [Barris, the creator of Black-ish]; Nahnatchka [Khan, executive producer of Fresh Off the Boat]—these are all incredibly personal stories. Nahnatchka is an immigrant of Persian parents. She did not have too different a life from the life that that family has in Fresh Off the Boat. So they bring an authenticity to it, and that means you can run for 18 seasons. Because Adam Goldberg is only just getting started. I've seen the [home video] tapes [that the show is based on]. So I think it's that combination of going to areas that people haven't been before, like Black-ish or Dr. Ken or Fresh Off the Boat, occasionally leaning into race—we leant into it with Black-ish and Fresh Off the Boat—but doing it under an overall brand: smart with heart and family. Those are the three things that define our brand.

Kevin Reilly said TNT is reducing ad loads for its new series. How do you strike the right balance between content and advertising?
Kevin wasn't wrong. There are definitely networks—and we've seen it over the last 20 years, it's not just over the last three or four—that for short-term business needs feel that they have to clutter their air space. We felt very strongly when we came into the network that we should do the opposite and actually removed a great deal of clutter. That being said, the truth is that magnificent television has been made for 50 years, and people love not just Scandal, but NYPD Blue and all the way back to Dallas and All in the Family, and they are shows which have advertising in them. What's interesting is that some of our best storytelling on ABC, led by Shonda Rhimes, has learned how to turn cards extremely well as you go from one act to the other. That is a bizarrely advertiser-friendly world. Some of our best storytelling has been built on the rhythms of advertising.

What's your mind-set as you start to look ahead to next season?
First of all, I believe you build networks—not just broadcast networks—not over a season, but over a course of years. It's taken us five or six years to get to a position where our brand is immensely strong, and we're the No. 1 C3 entertainment network. And there are a number of principles that drive you and are particularly relevant as you get into May. One is a sense of building a stable schedule, and if you've watched what we've done over five years, we've gradually added new hours and new half hours to the schedule to the point where you have a real tremendous level of quality in every hour of the network, and that takes time. You build it hour after hour, night after night, until you have a Wednesday night, until you have a TGIT.

But it's a combination of stability and ambition. I mean, I love taking risks. We do it within our brand prism and focus, so we know what ABC is. We know it's sophisticated, emotional entertainment, but occasionally, you see us taking risks. And sometimes we fall on our faces with those risks. But one of the wonderful things about ABC is that there are networks that the executives benefit from not taking risks—this is not one of them. This is the network of Scandal, Black-ish, Desperate Housewives and Lost. It's a network that richly values the risk-taking of the decision makers. So we like to do a balance between stability and ambition as we go into it. … This is a long and complicated way of pointing to the truth where it's my job to pick the best shows each year. That sounds trite, but there are so many forces at work—internal, external, talent-driven and otherwise—that conspire for you not to necessarily pick up the best shows and put them in the best places. And it's really my job to say, "But that is the best show, and that is the best place to put it." I may get that wrong, but it's my job to try to be as pure with that decision making as I can be.

What's a recent example of where you held firm and fought to pick up the best show?
American Crime. There's a show that if you looked at the history of broadcast television wouldn't naturally get picked up. But you sit and look at a pilot like that, you look at the auspices, you look at the cast, and you look at the risks it takes, and you say, "This show should be on ABC." And I'm glad it is.