Dungey Tackles Tall Order at ABC

The departure of Paul Lee from his perch atop ABC entertainment was not a shocker for most in Hollywood. What was surprising was the timing, with pilot season in full swing and the upfronts less than three months away.

“No one is surprised that it happened,” said one Hollywood insider who asked to be anonymous. “We’re just surprised it happened now. Why not wait to see how the pilots come out?”

His successor, Channing Dungey, arrives in the president’s post with a sterling reputation; multiple sources describe her as “super smart,” with an even keel and strong relationships with writers and producers. “Only good things to say,” says an ABC exec who, as with other sources, wished for anonymity due to the sensitivity of the situation.

One prerequisite for an ABC entertainment president these days is a stellar relationship with Shonda Rhimes, who plays an outsized role in keeping the network in the primetime race. Sources say Dungey and Rhimes share mutual trust and respect, one noting how heavily that relationship would weigh into such a promotion.

Dungey, previously VP of drama development at ABC, moves up with a strong pedigree. She joined ABC Studios in 2004 after stints at 20th Century Fox, film outfit Steamroller Productions and Warner Bros.

Says one showbiz exec, “It’s a big job, and I think she’s ready for it.”

ABC did not make Dungey available for comment.

Lee was pushed out following prolonged tension with Ben Sherwood, Disney-ABC TV Group president, a news veteran who the New York Times reports is increasingly flexing his muscles in creative decisions. Sources expect Sherwood to be hands-on with Dungey, who is untested at the president level. Sherwood, in a statement, referred to Dungey as "a gifted leader and a proven magnet for top creative talent."

The move represents the second network president change this season. In September, Glenn Geller, then executive VP of current programming for CBS Entertainment and CBS Television Studios, moved up to entertainment president when Nina Tassler, the longtime chief, gave notice.

One other key takeaway from the shakeup is Patrick Moran, head of ABC Studios, now reporting directly to Sherwood, which gives him a stronger voice within the Disney universe. He’d previously reported to Lee, but studio oversight is not part of Dungey’s job description. One studio vet says there’s an inherent conflict in an entertainment chief overseeing a studio, such as when a project is an ideal fit for a rival network. Code Black, for one, is produced by ABC Studios for CBS.

One ABC Studios insider envisioned “business as usual” in the operation.

Dungey has a tall order in front of her, with ABC’s prime ailing. The Muppets reboot has been a dud, and ABC had the ignominy of airing the first series, Wicked City, to be canceled this fall. The network lacks the NFL programming that rivals use for its massive promotional might, and is desperately in need of a hit or two.

Quantico has been good for them, but besides Shondaland, they are really struggling,” says one insider.

Upcoming rookies include The Catch and The Family.

Lee, former president of ABC Family, leaves a legacy of strong and unique comedies, such as Fresh Off the Boat and Black-ish, robust Thursday night soaps, commendable diversity on the air, and whatever might pop from the current pilot batch.

He lasted close to six years in the president’s post—not a bad run in this age of a thousand entertainment options, including sticky series on streaming services and cable. Still, one showbiz insider noted, “It shows you the network gigs never last long. Those are all still rented chairs.”   

Michael Malone

Michael Malone, senior content producer at B+C/Multichannel News, covers network programming, including entertainment, news and sports on broadcast, cable and streaming; and local broadcast television. He hosts the podcasts Busted Pilot, about what’s new in television, and Series Business, a chat with the creator of a new program, and writes the column “The Watchman.” He joined B+C in 2005. His journalism has also appeared in The New York Times, The Philadelphia Inquirer, Playboy and New York magazine.