“Storytelling itself has changed because our viewers have changed,” ABC Entertainment Group president Paul Lee said this morning at his opening presentation for the Banff World Media Festival in Canada. “Smart is the new mainstream….If the message of 20 years ago was famously never over-estimate the intelligence of the public, I think the message of today should be never under-estimate the intelligence of the public.” ABC has responded by promoting shows such as Once Upon A Time, Revenge and Suburgatory. They worked while “the not-so-smart shows that I did? Well, I needn’t mention Charlie’s Angels anymore….I like to call my brand ‘smart with heart’.” He says that while television has long offered smart shows, in the past “they were the exception, now they’re the rule.” With Once Upon A Time, he says the producers effectively straddle the demands of high and low culture. It’s also helped by green-screen technology that enables producers to use computers to generate a cinematic look without the need for extravagant sets and location shots. ABC initially ran into trouble when it promoted the show as a procedural. But when it began to sell it like a movie, “awareness shot through the roof.” ABC took a chance to build interest by putting the show online ahead of the TV premiere. “We found that presampling the whole show online can actually create enough buzz, enough conversation, enough excitement to drive higher, not lower linear numbers at launch.”

Lee also says that ABC researched what kinds of stories work in tough times. “We thought this was a joke and something we could sell at the upfront” presentation. The network found that in difficult periods such as the Great Depression audiences responded to tales of anger and revenge, romances, screwball comedies, and fairy tales. “Lo and behold when you look at the big shows that worked for us, they were comedies, stories of revenge and fairy tales, which was fascinating to see.” For this fall he’s optimistic about Nashville, The Neighbors, and 666 Park Avenue, which he describes as “a very ABC show, a deeply soapy show but it has a twist.”