LOS ANGELES — He's telling people here his Job One is to launch ABC's fall lineup of new TV shows.
But it was clear, minutes into newly hired ABC entertainment chief Paul Lee's appearance Sunday before a couple of hundred writers here at the TV Critics' media tour, that his first job was to avoid talk of the messy circumstances surrounding the departure of his predecessor, Stephen McPherson.
McPherson resigned from the job Tuesday, sparking buzz. Lee admitted he was hired just 36 hours before his first session with the media, as McPherson reportedly engaged an attorney to combat rumors his departure was related to problems with his professional conduct at the company.
"I don't want to talk about Steve," said Lee, a native of Britain and former BBC America executive who ran ABC Family for six years. Offered the job while on a family vacation, he gushed about the opportunity to head one of "the premier, iconic American storytelling brands," pledging not to change a "locked and loaded" fall series lineup.
Indeed, ABC began its media conferences Sunday with publicity head Kevin Brockman facing the crowd next to a thigh-high pink elephant doll, insisting they would make no additional comment on the biggest news story facing the network this week.
The average TV viewer may not care. But former Friends star Matthew Perry joked about it during a media conference for his new comedy Mr. Sunshine — noting the guy who told him when his show would air on ABC now wasn't in the room.
On a day when the focus should be on ABC's new shows, many critics were buzzing instead about how they would avoid the pink elephant all day.
"It's a weird thing to have happen," said Perry, whose show was planned for midseason. "Our hope is that Paul is the true fan of the show he says he is … and now I like his taste."
Perry was wryly self-deprecating, telling critics "you can tell how successful (my) movies were from the fact that I'm here" in TV. He developed the idea for a comedy about a self-centered sports arena manager learning to care about others from his own life, helping to write the script.
"Just pick up any newspaper from 1996," Perry said of his past, selfish life; he admitted a mid-'90s addiction to Vicodin years ago and went to rehab. "It's small steps … like asking somebody how they are and then actually being interested in the answer. That's how far I've gotten."
Perry admitted Mr. Sunshine is a return to his comedic comfort zone after some post-Friends exploration. "A lot of that was trying to get away from just being the 'funny guy,' " he added. "But I realized life is just a lot better when you're on a big hit TV show. I decided maybe I'll try to be funny."