ABC Chief Paul Lee looks to broaden base with 'S.H.I.E.L.D.'

ABC Chief Paul Lee looks to broaden base with 'S.H.I.E.L.D.'
Clark Gregg, Brett Dalton, and Chloe Bennet in a scene from "Marvel's Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.." (Justin Lubin / ABC)

Coming off a disappointing TV season, ABC Entertainment Group President Paul Lee is ratcheting up his "four quadrant" plan to boost the network's fortunes.

In ABC lingo, that means fielding prime-time shows that appeal to women and men, young and old.


In recent years, the network has attracted women in droves, with such spicy dramas as "Scandal," "Revenge," "Nashville," and "Grey's Anatomy."

Men, however, have been more scarce.

"We are super proud to be the No. 1 in women 18 to 49 but we are also a broadcast network and it's absolutely incumbent on us to try to bring in a wider audience," Lee on Sunday told television writers gathered for the Television Critics Assn. conference in Beverly Hills.

ABC finished the 2012-13 TV season in fourth place in the advertiser-preferred demographic of adult viewers younger than 50. The Walt Disney Co.-owned network is returning only two of the 10 prime-time shows it launched last season, including critical favorite "Nashville."

Still, ABC ranked second in total viewers in large part because of its big-tent philosophy. Older audiences flock to "Dancing With the Stars," which is being pared back this season to one night from two nights after stumbling this last season in the ratings.

Families historically have also been key to ABC. Its comedies "Modern Family" and "The Middle" appeal to men, women and teenagers alike. This season, ABC is offering a new family comedy set in the 1980s, "The Goldbergs," based on writer Adam F. Goldberg's youth.

But ABC's biggest bet this season is its first project with Marvel Entertainment, "Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.," the TV spinoff of Disney's blockbuster movie, "The Avengers."  Joss Whedon ("Buffy the Vampire Slayer") is developing the show.

"Shield is more of a four-quadrant. We do hope that is going to be a lot of co-viewing,"  Lee told reporters, referring to families watching together.

"Our friend Joss Whedon ... has got an amazing voice that brings vulnerability and real emotion between his characters and yet plays in that Marvel universe of heroes and superheroes," Lee said.

"Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D" will run Tuesday nights, and the tag line for the show, Lee said, is "Not all heroes are super. Our leads are not superheroes."

Still, ABC is not turning away from what has worked. Lee said the network is proud to roll out a "block of empowered women on Thursday," which is the network TV's biggest night for advertising dollars.

Thursday includes its highly anticipated Alice in Wonderland fantasy drama, "Once Upon a Time in Wonderland," which will run on Thursday at 8 p.m., followed by the proven "Grey's Anatomy" and the network's latest hit from Shonda Rhimes, "Scandal."


Lee also has said that its in-house production studio, ABC Studios, which has long been among the least robust of TV studios in Hollywood, has been getting more traction. International sales of its shows have increased.

ABC has several new shows starring foreign actors helping that cause.  It is pitching a new Wednesday night sitcom starring Australian comedic actress Rebel Wilson (of "Bridesmaids" fame): "Super Fun Night."  And the cast of "Once Upon a Time in Wonderland" includes a troupe of British actors.

Still, the level of storytelling, rather than the passports of actors or exotic locales, is driving decisions, said Lee, who is British.

He said he recently attended a wake in Ireland, and the conversation became centered on U.S. shows that have created huge international fan bases.

"I don't think it is our job to create shows branded for international," he said, unlike the strategies increasingly being employed by movie studios.

Instead, he said, it comes down to the power of storytelling.