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New ABC programming chief Paul Lee wows critics at press tour

When it finally came time for new ABC Entertainment chief Paul Lee to make his first appearance at the press tour as Steve McPherson's replacement, he knew he'd have a hard time topping a 4-foot-tall plush-toy elephant named Binky introduced earlier in the day by ABC Press Wrangling Big Cheese Kevin Brockman.

Paul Lee smoothly navigated through the press conference as critics tossed questions. (AP/BOB D'AMICO)

So, when it was his time to take questions from TV critics, he walked dramatically to the center of the stage, slowly and theatrically took off his black suit jacket, draped it elegantly over the back of his chair (his blue-striped shirt-sleeves were already rolled up), insinuated himself into his chair and began to wax eloquent about the important role TV critics have played in the success of both ABC Family and ABC, how honored he is to have been given this job at "one of the premiere iconic American storytelling brands" of which he has the fondest memories watching overseas as a child, and how, if there is a God in heaven, "Modern Family" will win the Emmy for best comedy this year. He even gave the show a quick round of applause.

It was a brilliant performance.

With affability and a proper British accent, Lee swatted away all questions thrown at him by critics. They even tried the old "What are your favorite ABC programs and what shows from any other networks do you wish you had on ABC?" gag that had so spectacularly tripped up Jeff Zucker a decade ago, when the "Today" show exec producer was named head of entertainment programming at that network and had trouble coming up with the names of any NBC primetime entertainment series.

Lee, however, did not miss a beat, responding glibly that he and his wife -- nice touch -- love watching "Modern Family" "every night" and ticking off "Grey's Anatomy," "Desperate Housewives" and "Dancing with the Stars" -- "not to mention 'The Bachelor.' "

And, in re shows he covets from other networks, Lee deftly said, "I am a big fan of 'Criminal Minds' -- which just happens to be the name of a show on CBS, that is co-produced by CBS -- and ABC Television Studios."

This guy's very, very good.

"As much as you can say, truthfully -- what just happened?" one critic asked about the executive shuffle that just landed Lee the ABC gig.

"Well, I've just been on vacation," he joked, adding "I'm not answering your question."

Turns out, affability and a proper British accent works like Valium on most TV critics.

He explained that his wife -- nice touch - thought he should take the job. "She said, 'It's going to be great ... lots of opportunity!' " But when he told her he thought he should leave their vacation to attend the press tour Sunday, her response, he said, was, "How DARE you!"

"I really can't answer that," he said, in conclusion.

"You want us to believe you took the job without asking what happened?" one affability-and-accent immune critic demanded to know. Actually, he had not said that.

"I felt very honored to be asked" to take the job, "and thrilled to do it," he said. "But I don't want to talk about Steve."

"Where were you on vacation?" another critic wondered.

Lee was on the beach.

What beach, critics wanted to know.

"A drive away," he responded. "Do you want the address? I'm not getting into trouble with my wife" -- nice touch -- he said. "I'm not giving you the address."

He has seen all the new-series pilots and has no plans to make sudden changes to the new ABC lineup scheduled to debut next month, which was developed and executed by McPherson.

"We're locked and loaded here -- literally weeks away," Lee said, adding "You make changes ... and you can make more damage than good. These are rockets. They have to be fueled, built, loaded and launched," he said, noting that that was probably the "completely wrong analogy."

Asked whether he was a Go With Your Research or Go With Your Gut kind of guy -- McPherson was notoriously dismissive of research -- Lee said, "The honest truth is, if you don't look at your research then you're not understanding your network."

"You ignore testing at your peril" he said, because it tells you where you are deluding yourself about a show with which you've fallen in love but for which viewers might not harbor the same feelings.

On the other hand, he acknowledged that when he headed BBC America, the British version of "The Office," starring Ricky Gervais, was the worst-testing show he'd ever come across.

"Steve McPherson famously danced at the Upfronts in tight black pants. Do you have any hidden talent?" asked critics, clearly worn down by Lee's poise.

"I remember watching that and saying, 'I'm so glad I don't have Steve's job,' " Lee reminisced.

"No, that's not something I'm capable of doing. I'm a Brit. I'm far too self-conscious to get up and dance."

By Lisa de Moraes  |  August 1, 2010; 4:59 PM ET
Categories:  Summer TV Press Tour 2010  
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