Paul Lee, the executive who revived Walt Disney Co.'s moribund ABC Family channel with shows that appealed to the sensibilities of the millennial generation, was elevated Friday to president of ABC Entertainment Group.
Lee immediately takes over for Steve McPherson, who abruptly stepped down this week.
The 50-year-old, London-born Lee, a former BBC television executive, will oversee creative and business operations for the broadcast network as well as ABC Studios, the company’s in-house TV production unit. It’s a massive job for the executive, who has spent the last decade keeping a modest profile at mid-size cable channels.
But Disney executives are confident that Lee is up to the task. They point to Lee’s variety of skills, which include producing and directing made-for-TV movies. He worked on spicy telenovelas, a staple of Spanish-language television.
“Paul was hired six years ago because of his great creative instincts and his ability to identify an audience and develop programming that resonates with them,” Anne Sweeney, president of the Disney/ABC Television Group, said in a statement.
Broadening ABC’s audience will be Lee’s biggest challenge. A sore point for Disney was the fact that ABC ended the most recent television season in a third-place tie with NBC in the important category of viewers ages 18 to 49.
“He’s got to find some shows that attract men to the network. ABC’s audience is primarily made of up of women because of shows like ' Desperate Housewives’ and ‘Grey’s Anatomy,’ ” said Brad Adgate, a TV analyst with Horizon Media. “But those shows are getting older. He has to create the next generation of hits for ABC. Their biggest shows have had a noticeable fall-off in audience.”
Reaching out to men has been a priority for ABC since it gave up its longtime ratings giant “Monday Night Football.” Although a huge draw, the show lost hundreds of millions of dollars a year for the network. Disney shifted the franchise to its profitable ESPN network, which has two streams of revenue — advertising and cable affiliate fees.
Despite taking big swings with shows with futuristic concepts, such as “Flash Forward,” or a look at some Neanderthal characters in “Cave Men,” McPherson was unable to bring in the testosterone crowd. During the last six years, the ABC network and TV studio has spent more than $500 million developing new shows, buying scripts and making deals with writers and producers.
“One of the mistakes that McPherson made was looking for another ' Lost’ or another ‘Desperate Housewives,’ ” said David Scardino, entertainment specialist with the Santa Monica advertising agency RPA. “And those shows were really unique and not easy to replace.”
The shows that McPherson developed, he said, “always looked great and sounded great but they weren’t really executed that well.”
McPherson’s biggest hit was “Modern Family,” but even that show lacks the mainstream appeal of some of CBS’ comedies, including “Two and a Half Men,” and “The Big Bang Theory.”
Lee will step into the spotlight Sunday when he is introduced to more than 150 television industry writers in town for the twice-a-year gathering of the Television Critics Assn.
Lee founded the BBC America channel in the U.S. before joining ABC Family in 2004. He developed original shows for young adults who were craving sophisticated yet sweet dramas. The cable network has found success with such programs as “The Secret Life of the American Teenager,” “Pretty Little Liars” and “Kyle XY.”
Under Lee, ABC Family has shown six consecutive years of growth and ranks among the top five cable networks in prime time for teens and young women ages 18 to 49.