For ABC Entertainment President Paul Lee, the Alphabet network's fall schedule was a bit of a mixed bag.
"We have a lot to shout about and we also have a lot to do," Lee told reporters at the Television Critics Association winter TV previews on Thursday. The network, which finished 2012 in third place behind NBC and Fox, struggled to launch new shows — new dramas Last Resort and 666 Park Avenue were canceled; Nashville is solid, though Lee wishes he had more viewers in the 35-to-49 demographic — and saw previous ratings juggernaut Dancing with the Stars slide to new lows. "Turns out people like to see bad dancing [more than] they like to see good dancing," Lee said about the recent all-stars edition.
On the plus side, Lee said he is thrilled to see the growth among such returning shows as Once Upon a Time, Scandal and Revenge. Lee is also "bullish" on the upcoming Seth MacFarlane-hosted Oscars telecast as well as new drama Red Widow.
But perhaps the network's biggest hope for improvement lies further out on the horizon with Joss Whedon's S.H.I.E.L.D. Although Lee said the network hadn't seen the finished pilot nor made a decision about its future as a series, he noted that it was fast-tracked, partially because of The Avengers' box-office dominance and the new show's perceived ability to attract a broad, family audience.
"Marvel has the ability to bring a whole family around it," Lee said. "Joss has a lot of great relationships in it. There are a lot of really funny male-female relationships. ... We're very hopeful about it going to series and building our marketing plan early. We do see that as a show that we can bring men and women and kids to."
In fact, Lee said that he learned a key lesson from Last Resort's failure this fall. "If we do shows that guys like that women don't come to, that doesn't work for us," he said. "If we do shows that women like and men love too, we have a crack at [succeeding]. If we hang a 'Do Not Enter' sign that really doesn't work. "
Some other highlights from Lee's executive session:
How much life is left in Dancing with the Stars? Despite its lagging ratings with the advertiser-coveted younger viewers, Lee said the show isn't going anywhere. "We're still intending to go twice a year. It's a big, broad crowd-pleaser," Lee said. After the panel, Lee told reporters that the trick to bringing the demo numbers up is in the casting. "People love to see the journey as much as they like to see the competition," he said. "We can all remember many [seasons] of Dancing where you've had people surprise you. You never thought they could [win]. You've had people lose weight and suddenly turn out to be the fittest people. That's something that we've done very, very well... and we'll be able to do that just by going back to our normal way of casting."
How's Jimmy Kimmel doing at 11:35? Naturally, Lee is enthused with Kimmel's strong debut, in which he beat out David Letterman. "It's early days, but there is no question that Jimmy has come out strong," he said. "He has a lot of momentum. It's a long game but he's started well. "
Is ABC's airing of Happy Endings and Don't Trust the B---- in Apt. 23 twice a week a good sign or a bad one? Lee insists that the choice to show episodes during their normal Tuesday timeslots as well as during 666 Park Avenue's vacant Sundays at 10/9c timeslot shows the network's dedication to the two struggling comedies rather than an attempt to burn the episodes off. "We love those shows," Lee said, calling them "distinctive, water cooler" shows. "We think the [Sunday night airings] are a great way to sample them." Lee declined to say what his expectations are for the show in terms of possible renewal.
Will Seth MacFarlane make the Oscars extra edgy? Despite the Family Guy creator's love of raunchy comedy, Lee said he's most impressed by MacFarlane's "sense of joy" and his love of the song-and-dance aspect of the show. "He has a sense of respect, but I think he's going to bring us a really contemporary feel," Lee said. "We're going to have a good Oscars."
What does Lee think of Revenge's second season? Last season's breakout hit has been dinged by critics this season for its overly convoluted storytelling. But Lee is more focused on the show's continued ratings success. "It grew in ratings and it's a broader show and we got more audiences there," he said. "I think there's only growth to be had there and we were thrilled that it went up in some measures." When pressed on the creative issues, Lee only said, "I know [cretator] Mike Kelley is excited about focusing on our lead characters and the emotional journeys."
How's the new TGIF doing? While Lee maintains ABC's comedy success has been with "sophisticated, single-camera" shows, he is happy with the combo of multi-camera sitcoms Last Man Standing and Malibu Country as a lead-in into Shark Tank. "I've always loved that heritage for ABC," Lee said. "This is a good first step for us." Noting that Friday is usually a TV graveyard, Lee said, "nothing about our comedy block or Shark Tank has been put out to pasture."
Will Last Resort get a decent ending? Despite its cancellation, Lee said the show will be able to complete the story it began. "We [canceled] it early enough so that [co-creator Shawn Ryan] has got a great ending," Lee said. "The audience will judge, but we feel we did a great job of creating an ending to it."
Is Mistresses the next Desperate Housewives? Perhaps learning his lesson from the failed GCB, Lee wasn't as quick to compare Mistresses to Housewives. "I don't know that it's trying to do exactly that job," he said. "I don't think my job is to replace shows with shows that are nearly as good but not quite as good. If we have slowing-down franchises, like we did with Desperate, [my job] is to replenish it with something different."