Disney is likely to promote Paul Lee to ABC Entertainment president

Walt Disney Co. is poised to elevate an executive who began his career as a reporter covering the strife in Belfast, Northern Ireland, as the new president of ABC Entertainment.

Now, Paul Lee will venture into another divided landscape to pick up the pieces after ABC’s short-fused president, Steve McPherson, abruptly resigned this week.

Lee was on vacation Wednesday and not available for comment. Disney executives were uncertain whether his new employment agreement would be completed by Sunday, when McPherson was supposed to take the stage in Beverly Hills to tout ABC’s new fall shows to more than 200 reporters.

Although Lee’s appointment came sooner than many industry executives expected, the low-key British executive has been viewed as an up-and-comer within Disney for years. Over the last six years, Lee transformed the ABC Family channel — previously considered a wildly overpriced $5-billion purchase by former Disney Chief Executive Michael Eisner — into the best-of-class.

“ABC Family, over the last five years, has executed a complete turnaround,” said Kris Magel, executive vice president of broadcast for the advertising buying firm Initiative USA. “They have really hit the ball out of the park in original programming. Each year, they seem to launch a successful new show.”

The most recent is “Pretty Little Liars,” a mystery based on the young adult novels by Sara Shepard, which ABC Family unveiled only a few weeks ago and is on track to become a hit. The series follows the disappearance of a girl who later appears to be sending text messages to her friends threatening to expose their secrets. Its success came on the heels of the breakout hit “Secret Life of the American Teenager,” a series about how the birth of a baby to a teenager who became pregnant at band camp affects her entire family.

Lee, a former BBC programming executive, recognized earlier than others in television that the personality of the so-called millennial generation, people under age 30, was different — more optimistic and family-oriented — than the more jaded Generation X, which feasted on such excessive MTV shows as “The Hills” and “Real World.”

ABC Family has “a very young, female-skewed audience,” Magel said. “It’s also family-driven. Sometimes, they will take on controversial issues, which I think for the most part have been well received.”

Until Lee arrived at ABC Family, a channel once owned by evangelist Pat Robertson, the outlet lacked a brand identity and relied heavily on programming developed elsewhere, including reruns from the now defunct WB network.

Lee, however, was determined to contemporize the definition of “family,” which harks back to a bygone Disney image that turned off TV programmers who wanted to court the more daring zeitgeist of younger viewers.

He also has had success with a return to TV movies — an area most programmers abandoned — scoring with the recent original movies “My Fake Fiancé,” starring Melissa Joan Hart and Joey Lawrence, and " Another Cinderella Story,” starring Disney Channel star Selena Gomez.

This month, ABC Family posted a record number of viewers for a July and new highs among females ages 12 to 34. The channel has posted six consecutive years of audience growth, a rare feat in the current fragmented TV landscape.

Before joining ABC Family six years ago, Lee was chief executive and founder of the BBC America channel. Before moving to the U.S., Lee worked in Moscow and Brazil as an editor for BBC Prime, the company’s 24-hour entertainment channel. He also produced, directed and wrote TV movies. He has a master’s degree in modern languages from Oxford.