The Hollywood community is still absorbing the Wednesday news out of ABC that Entertainment Group president Paul Lee abruptly resigned, and the network’s head of drama Channing Dungey was named president of entertainment. The executive shakeup, orchestrated by Disney-ABC TV Group president Ben Sherwood, made history, with Dungey becoming the first African American entertainment president of a broadcast network. It also made ABC, led by Dungey, and ABC Studios, led by Patrick Moran, autonomous — both reporting to Sherwood — for the first time since January 2009 when the two units were combined in ABC Entertainment Group under Stephen McPherson. Under Lee, ABC successfully ushered diversity into primetime with such strong performers — many of them developed by Dungey — as Scandal, How To Get Away with Murder, Black-ish, Quantico and Fresh off the Boat. But with serialized dramas’ ratings slipping year vs. year, midseason “bridge shows” underperforming and a couple of fall series flopping, ABC has found itself in negative ratings territory vs. last season. In an interview with Deadline, Sherwood and Dungey discuss their immediate and long-term plans for ABC, a “smooth” executive transition, potential pilot changes and additions, content ownership, the importance of diversity and Dungey’s pending replacement atop of the network’s drama department.
DEADLINE: Changes are usually made when something is not working. What needs to be fixed at ABC?
SHERWOOD: Paul and I worked together for six years and we accomplished a lot together. He did some great things for ABC, but it was time for a change. We all believe that ABC can do better and we need fresh air and new thinking. We’re building a team that’s committed to telling great stories, to working closely together to reach our audiences in new and inventive ways and to building bridges across the Walt Disney Company. That’s what Channing is all about. She’s about creativity and collaboration, innovation and ideas.
DEADLINE: ABC’s ratings have been down this season. What do you think will be the key to a ratings turnaround?
DUNGEY: Having only been on the job about 72 hours, I’m still getting up to speed. But the obvious answer is, we need more hit programming. The kind of programming that excites our audience from the start. I know the drama pilots really well and with (head of comedy) Samie (Falvey)’s help, I’m starting to get a sense of our comedy development. I do feel like we have a lot of fantastic resources here that are under-utilized, and I’m looking forward to diving into that. So I guess I’d just say, Stay Tuned.
SHERWOOD: I would add that Channing is the right leader at the right time. She’s a magnet for talent. She works easily and well with everyone at Disney|ABC and across our Company. She’s well respected and well liked throughout Hollywood, which is no small accomplishment. She’s a smart and savvy business executive. She’s the total package. And when it comes to the challenges ahead, she is more than ready for that task. My job is to support her and to help her succeed.
DEADLINE: What kind of programming changes would you want to see? Is a shift to less serialized dramas one of them?
SHERWOOD: To be clear, our discussions aren’t focused around specific genres; we’re not talking about more of X or less of Y. Those are Channing’s decisions. That said, we are very focused on making more popular and profitable programs. We simply need to do what is best for our network and studio in the long run. So decisions will be made with everything on the table about how to drive growth here and around the world.
DUNGEY: Given that we’ve already established a course for this development season, these conversations are taking place in a bigger picture, longer term sense. The pilots have been ordered and we’ll evaluate them all come May, when we’ll have more of our strategic vision in place for where to take ABC in the years to come.
DEADLINE: How long was the executive change in the works? Were any of the pilot pickups informed by the pending transition, with you and Channing Dungey playing a bigger role in the decision-making and Paul Lee taking a back seat?
SHERWOOD: This development season is Paul’s. He made the decisions, working with Patrick, Channing and Samie to put together the best pilots.
DEADLINE: It is pretty late in the development cycle but will you try to make any creative changes to the ordered pilots, like beefing up the procedural element? Would there be additional, last-minute pilot pickups?
DUNGEY: I am absolutely happy with the drama pilots we have in play, and I’ve heard from Samie that she is thrilled with her comedy choices. Now it will be up to us to shepherd them through to completion. That said, if something out-of-the-blue were to come up that we thought made strategic sense for ABC, I’m sure discussions would be had. We have to be open and receptive to those possibilities.
DEADLINE: A changeover at the top of a network is stressful for the creative community, especially for those who have pilots at ABC. What would you tell them?
SHERWOOD: I would tell them it’s going to be a smooth, easy transition and we aren’t going to drop a ball or miss a stitch. Channing is one of the most respected and talented executives in our business. As I said, she’s collaborative, communicative and decisive. She’s played a key role in the work of ABC for years, so this transition should be much less complicated or stressful than others.
DUNGEY: I want ABC to be a fantastic home for creative, talented people with unique points of view and personal stories to tell, and for us to be able to support them in bringing their ideas to the screen. It’s what my entire career has been about.
DEADLINE: What do you think needs immediate attention? Are you considering any scheduling changes this spring?
DUNGEY: Having been in my job for all of 72 hours, I think getting up to speed is priority number one right now.
DEADLINE. Which of Paul Lee’s development strategies would you continue? Is the push for diversity one of them?
DUNGEY: Absolutely. Diversity is enormously important to me. It was part of my mission in my old role and we will continue to be as diverse as we possibly can — both in front of and behind the camera – going forward. It makes sense from a storytelling perspective, it makes sense in terms of reflecting the world that we live in. And it also makes really good business sense.
DEADLINE: What is something currently not on ABC that you would like to see on the network?
DUNGEY: At this point, everything is on the table.
DEADLINE: ABC has been open about its push for program ownership. All but one of ABC’s pilots this season are produced or co-produced by ABC Studios. Will the effort continue, and how important is for ABC to own the most of its shows?
SHERWOOD: ABC Studios is an incredibly important driver of future growth for our business. Given that trajectory, I thought that it was time for the studio to get even more support, even more attention, and to have full standing at the table as we chart the course for the future. We want the studio to grow even more. To make that happen, it is important for Patrick to be part of our wider discussions about the future of the television business.
DUNGEY: Patrick and I have worked closely together for many, many years and have a great working shorthand. He seems to have that relationship with the entire team, and that certainly helps in their development for ABC. We’ve built a lot of fantastic series together over the years, and can’t imagine that changing going forward.
DEADLINE: Channing, how close are you to naming your successor as head of drama at ABC? Will you stay in-house, maybe upping one of your lieutenants?
DUNGEY: There is a lot of talent at ABC and in our industry. I’ll be making that decision in the near future.
DEADLINE: And one last question for Channing. With the big new job, will you be able to continue to teach Developing the Drama Pilot at your alma mater UCLA? Would you expand the class to comedy pilots once you master that?
DUNGEY: The class actually broadened awhile back and is now more of an Introduction to TV Development, so I’ve had both drama and comedy-focused students for the past few years. As for continuing, I certainly hope so. I find teaching to be a great way to keep everything in perspective, and to help give back. It’s also a lot of fun, and creatively invigorating.