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ABC had a good 2014-'15 TV season. Now it’s getting a little cocky.

ABC put The Muppets on the air, even though it has yet to shoot a pilot.
ABC put The Muppets on the air, even though it has yet to shoot a pilot.
Emily St. James was a senior correspondent for Vox, covering American identities. Before she joined Vox in 2014, she was the first TV editor of the A.V. Club.

Talk to anybody who works in television and they'll freely express how the next five to 10 years are critical for the industry. Everything is going to change.

In the future, networks will probably be brands, more than anything else. When you can watch anything at any time on any number of platforms, it really won't matter where it came from. That's a problem if you're a company whose entire reason for existing is providing content to viewers that can be supported by advertising.

So if you're, say, ABC, you're probably thinking about this strange new world. And if you're ABC, you might decide everything could be solved with branding.

ABC is getting relentless in its branding

Wicked City on ABC. Ed Westwick.

The new serial killer drama Wicked City is apparently part of ABC's strategy to appeal to millennials.


I've often thought that CBS and ABC seem especially well-positioned to survive the upcoming TV Ragnarok — CBS for its giant war chest of cash, and ABC because of all four major networks, I most know what an ABC show is. It's soapy and sexy and often has a female lead — think Scandal or Nashville. And if it's a comedy, it's probably centered on a goofy family of one sort or another — like Modern Family or Fresh Off the Boat.

By contrast, Fox seems as if it will eventually just disappear into 20th Century Fox, its parent corporation (and arguably is already in the early stages of this), while NBC ... well, who knows what NBC is doing.

But it's also possible this assumption is just ABC getting under my skin subconsciously. At the network's day at the 2015 Television Critics Association summer press tour, everybody up there pitching the network's shows, both new and old, was relentlessly on-message when it came to what it meant to be an ABC show. The biannual executive session featured network president Paul Lee saying the word "ABC" so often that it almost seemed as if he were inventing a drinking game.

In some ways, this is why Lee is the perfect network head for this age. He really does believe that this enhanced branding isn't just necessary but true. At one point, he said something about how nobody in TV does heroines like ABC heroines — and even though this is a golden age of lead roles for women on television, I still found myself half believing him, because, hey, ABC does have a lot of shows prominently starring women, including the long-running hit Grey's Anatomy and the upcoming Quantico. (At one point, the star of that latter show, Bollywood superstar Priyanka Chopra, making her American television debut, said all of the golden-age TV programs that made her want to star on American TV were on ABC. Clearly, the network's talking points were strong.)

The network also has the cocky swagger of one that really thinks it's on the right path. It picked up a new series about the Muppets much more quickly than anybody anticipated, and it only sent critics the first five minutes of its upcoming drama Wicked City, when the expected practice is to send the full pilot or skip sending anything entirely if the pilot's really disastrous. Just five minutes? Whatever. ABC doesn't care.

(That pilot, it should be said, also opens with a man receiving oral sex from a woman, then murdering her like she was cannon fodder in a slasher movie. When the producers got up to explain what they were thinking, they said they hoped to make a show full of strong women — and, again, because this is ABC, where nobody does heroines like ABC heroines, I half believed them!)

But it's working

Viola Davis stars in How to Get Away with Murder.

How to Get Away With Murder, starring Viola Davis, was a big part of ABC's recent surge.


Whatever Lee is doing (even if it's just leaning into the cyclical nature of the television industry), it's turning the network's fortunes around. ABC's ratings were up more than any of the big four networks in the 2014-'15 season, launching a staggering number of new hits, including Black-ish and How to Get Away With Murder, which posted some of the best numbers for new shows in years.

Lee occasionally seems like a collection of Twitter hashtags piled on top of each other in the rough form of a man — he spent much of his session telling reporters that Wicked City had tested "through the roof!" with millennials, who don't really watch TV utilizing traditional methods — but there's something about his relentless belief that branding will save everybody that makes him seem like some sort of weirdly prophetic figure.

Of all major network heads, Lee alone seems most interested in incorporating literally every storytelling option he can think of. He'll try miniseries. He'll do big, serialized soaps. He'll toss out a detective show or two. He'll even offer a musical about a singing knight.

He also continues to be one of the boldest major TV executives in terms of backing projects he really believes in. His taste is a little weird — like he really loves that daffy musical Galavant for some reason — but he is more likely to back, say, the incredibly grim American Crime, which tells a brand new ripped-from-the-headlines story about the intersections of race, gender, class, and power every season. Crime didn't get great ratings, but Lee really loved it, so it's back. And the Emmys backed up that faith, rewarding the show with 10 nominations — and propelling ABC to the highest nomination total of any of the broadcast networks.

Lee doesn't seem to always know what the future is, but unlike other networks' heads, he's always running heedlessly toward it. He'll find out if there's light at the end of the tunnel when he gets there, and if there is, he might just take ABC with him to salvation.

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