Is ABC Family’s Boss the Right Guy to Run ABC?

by | July 28, 2010 at 2:48 PM | TV News

Paul (Angela Weiss/Getty Images)

Paul Lee (Angela Weiss/Getty Images)

By Frazier Moore

NEW YORK – As head of cable’s ABC Family, Paul Lee turned an also-ran channel into a hip destination for teens as well as their parents.

Now the struggling ABC needs a bit of that programming mojo and, with the abrupt exit on Tuesday by network boss Stephen McPherson, the candidate appears to be Lee.

ABC remained mum on Wednesday as to who would be taking McPherson’s place, and when the announcement would be made. But Lee is the likely choice, according to an industry official who spoke on the condition of anonymity because that person wasn’t authorized to speak publicly about the leadership change.

If he is tapped as ABC’s Entertainment Group president, Lee’s task will be sizable.

During the six years that McPherson held the job, ABC scored with high-impact series such as ‘Desperate Housewives‘ and ‘Lost,’ as well as ‘Dancing With the Stars,’ which beat Fox’s powerful ‘American Idol‘ certain nights last spring.

Lately, though, a winning combination of shows has eluded ABC as many of its biggest hits have begun to lose steam or leave the air. The bold experiment to launch four back-to-back comedies on Wednesday last fall paid off, with three of them — including ‘Modern Family‘ — connecting with viewers. But the much-anticipated serial thriller ‘FlashForward‘ flopped.

ABC ended last season in third place among the big four networks, just barely ahead of fourth place NBC.

Lee faced a much tougher challenge in 2004 when he came to ABC Family. Formerly the Fox Family Channel, it was a moribund cable outlet that had been bought by the Walt Disney Co. three years earlier for more than $5 billion with the idea of repurposing content from Disney’s broadcast network, ABC. When Lee arrived, it had neither a clear identity nor much of an audience.

Lee put a renewed emphasis on the “Family” in the channel’s name and promoted “A New Kind of Family,” while mounting an aggressive hunt for viewers in the 18-to-28 age group, a demo he dubbed “millennials.”

“He was miracle worker,” said media industry analyst Shari Anne Brill. “Prior to his arrival, it had been mostly a dumping ground for failed ABC series.”

ABC President Stephen McPherson Resigns

“Family drama is alive and well and people are rediscovering it,” Lee said in a 2006 interview with The Associated Press. “We felt we could take a brand that maybe had looked away from its core word and say, `Hold on, we can reclaim this word.’”

He did. His many successes in original programming include ‘The Secret Life of the American Teenager,’ ‘Greek‘ and ‘Pretty Little Liars.’

Last week, ABC Family was the ninth-ranked ad-supported network among 18-to-34-year-old viewers all day, and fifth-ranked during prime time, according to the Nielsen Co.

Before joining ABC Family, Lee was chief executive officer of BBC America, and was responsible for the development and launch of the company in 1998.

And before that, Lee, who was born in London 50 years ago and holds a master’s degree in modern languages from Oxford University, had spent more than a decade at the BBC. There he displayed versatility as an executive, news documentary maker and entertainment producer. He began as a reporter assigned to conflict-plagued Belfast, Northern Ireland.

McPherson’s departure as programming chief at ABC comes just days before the network’s presentation of its fall schedule to TV reporters and critics. The network is set to bring the cast and producers of new and returning shows to the Television Critics Association gathering on Sunday in Beverly Hills, where, but for his sudden resignation, McPherson would have presided.

He leaves behind a slate of new shows with stars that include Matthew Perry, Michael Imperioli, Michael Chiklis and Dana Delany, and such offbeat shows as the mock-docmentary drama ‘My Generation‘ and ‘No Ordinary Family,’ a comedy-drama about a family endowed with super powers.

If Lee is in place as ABC boss by then, he will be in the awkward position of touting a fall line up with which he had nothing to do.

He — or whoever fills the ABC vacancy — won’t have much of an impact until midseason at the earliest; fall 2011 would be the first chance to make a sweeping change.

In the meantime, McPherson plans to focus on “a new media company” and “a new entrepreneurial venture in the spirits business,” he said in a statement.

“He’s a great guy, a good friend, and I wish him the best,” CBS entertainment chief Nina Tassler told the Television Critics Association on Wednesday.

When asked her reaction to the news that he had left ABC, “I said, ‘Damn it, he got out of a press tour,’” Tassler cracked.

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