The Network Builder: Former War Reporter Paul Lee Goes For a Three-peat At ABC

There is one element in Paul Lee’s background that in my opinion makes him well equipped for his new job as ABC Entertainment Group president. It’s not his 6-year tenure as president of ABC Family, he will find soon enough that broadcast TV is a whole new ball game. It’s not his degree from Oxford either, it is probably too highbrow for the populist nature of U.S. broadcast TV. It is Lee’s very first job out of college as a BBC reporter stationed in Belfast, Northern Ireland, covering the conflict during a particularly critical period. If he wasn’t afraid to step into a real-life crossfire, he probably won’t be intimidated by facing critics and reporters at TCA on Sunday or tough talent negotiations and difficult decisions at ABC in the future.

Lee, who turned 50 a couple of weeks ago, is asked to build a third consecutive TV network almost from scratch. He launched BBC America and put the channel on the map with such series as the British version of The Office and Changing Rooms, both of which were successfully remade by U.S. networks, NBC and TLC (Trading Spaces). Then at ABC Family, he inherited a neglected channel whose purchase had been deemed one of the worst business deals in TV history that was stuffed with repurposed ABC shows, no original series and a dying original movie franchise. He rebuilt the channel with a demo-focused original fare like The Secret Life of the American Teenager. Now, he is facing a similar brand rebuilding task at ABC, which is in dire need of hit original scripted series after years of high-profile flops. During the past year alone, the list includes FlashForward, The Forgotten, Eastwick, Happy Town, Hank, The Deep End and this summer’s Scoundrels and The Gates.

I find it interesting that Disney more than any other company is relying almost exclusively on its internal executive roster for top division hires. Lee is going from ABC Family to ABC. Disney Channels Worldwide topper Rich Ross moved to head Walt Disney Studios. Ross’ job at Disney Channels went to another veteran Disney executive, Carolina Lightcap. A few years back, ABC executive Andrea Wong was tapped to run Lifetime. And Lee’s predecessors at ABC, McPherson, Susan Lyne, Lloyd Braun and Stu Bloomberg all came out of ABC or Disney’s TV production divisions.

And one last note. There has been a lot of clamoring lately about the large number of British actors landing the leads in U.S. pilots. With Lee’s appointment, we now have two British leading men at the U.S. broadcast networks: Lee and Fox entertainment chairman Peter Rice. That’s a first for as long as I can remember. With Simon Cowell still the most influential figure in the reality space, Rice and Lee running two of the Big 4 U.S. networks and more and more British actors toplining American series, we may be in the middle of a British TV invasion.

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