ABC Heads Ben Sherwood and Channing

Channing Dungey, who took the reins of ABC Entertainment this week, has a few challenges ahead — primarily reversing the ratings slide of the network, which is ranked fourth in the key adults 18-49 demo.

Her appointment is also a historic one, marking the first time an African-American has led programming at a major broadcast network. The well-liked executive, who rose to the position from the head of the drama department, has been winning raves from showrunners, who praise her creative instincts. She’s credited with shepherding the successes of the Shonda Rhimes “TGIT” lineup — including “Grey’s Anatomy” and “Scandal” — as well as “Criminal Minds” (produced by ABC Studios for CBS) and freshman hit “Quantico.”

“It’s been a whirlwind of the past 72 hours,” says Dungey. “It’s been overwhelming. But the response has been very kind, which feels lovely.”

Here, Dungey and her boss Ben Sherwood, president of Disney/ABC TV Group, tell Variety about the reason for the change, their strategy for the future, and what making history means to them.

What happened with Paul Lee?

Sherwood: I know we’re in the entertainment business so I get that the drama makes a good story, but that’s overblown. Paul and I worked together here for six years and we got a lot of stuff done together. He did great things for ABC but it was time for a change. We need fresh air and new thinking and we all believe that ABC can do a lot better. We’re building a team that’s committed to telling great stories. We’re working closely together and building bridges across the Walt Disney Company. We’re focused on reaching audiences in new and innovative ways and that’s what Channing is all about. She’s about creativity and collaboration and innovation, and she’s also a smart, intuitive businesswoman, so right leader, right time.

Why is Channing the right person for the job?

Sherwood: I’ve been back at the company for six years, I’ve been out here for two, so during the year of transition with Anne Sweeney and during my first year in this role, I’ve worked closely with her on the last two seasons, and I can tell you that she is incredibly creative. She’s a magnet for talent; she is wonderfully collaborative; she’s open to new ideas; she works easily with all the leaders of the Disney/ABC group and also across the Walt Disney Company; she is respected and liked across the creative community and throughout Hollywood; she’s a smart, savvy and very intuitive business leader; she’s the total package. I’ve spent time with her in all kinds of different settings, whether it’s in regular development meetings or in screenings orin the most casual business settings when our company is together, and I’ve had my eye on her and watching her grow. The time was right for change, and Channing was the obvious choice.

Channing, what was your reaction when Ben came to you with this offer?

Dungey: The timing on it was a little bit of a surprise; we’re in the midst of pilot season, but it was an incredible opportunity. This is the job that you look towards and think “Well, someday, if…” or “maybe…” and the fact that now I have this opportunity to stretch and grow and to take what I have enjoyed doing, which is hearing from passionate talent creators about the ideas that they really want to bring to fruition and being a part of helping to realize that vision, and the fact that now we can be talking about that in so many different areas — not just drama but comedy, unscripted, events, specials, late-night. It’s a much bigger canvas, and that’s to me, really exciting.

What do you think your biggest challenge is going into the job?

Dungey: That’s an interesting question. It’s been such a short time that I’ve had the job that there are still so many things that I’m getting a handle on. It feels like every day there’s a new thing that you didn’t quite see coming, so it’s sort of hard to answer that until I fully get up to speed. But obviously we’re all facing, in the broadcast television business, lots of different challenges. We all know that there are different scripted programs out there and we’re all facing the same challenges in terms of ratings and everything else, but I think that there is a lot of opportunity to be had as well, and what I’m excited to do is to get to explore that.

What do you think particular to ABC is the first issue you need to tackle?

Dungey: We’ve just started having those conversations, Ben and I, and again, it’s a little too soon to say what the very first thing is we’re going to do. I’m diving into this new role in the middle of pilot season. I know really well what we’re doing with all the dramas, I’m getting up to speed with the comedies; I do feel even based on what I’ve seen so far that we’re going to have some great choices come May. What I’m looking forward to is getting to sit with Ben over these next few days and weeks and really start to form and hone that strategy.

What does it mean to you to be the first African-American to lead a major broadcast network?

Dungey: [Laughs.] To look at it that way it’s overwhelming, and it’s been great. It’s really humbling, to be perfectly honest, for this to be happening in this way. People have said, “How does it feel to be a role model?” and I’ve always considered myself to be a role model to my daughter, which is first and foremost for me. But I do feel that if in this new role I encourage women of color to pursue careers in entertainment and along those lines, that for me is going to feel really rewarding and very satisfying.

Ben, why was it important to make the move to have the studio report directly up to you?

Sherwood: If you look hard at the ABC Studio you see it is an important driver of future growth for our business. 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; we want Patrick Moran to be at my table, and be part of the discussions about the future of the whole of the television business.

Was that something Paul was standing in the way of?

Sherwood: No, that wasn’t an issue I ever raised with Paul; it wasn’t something we ever talked about. Paul oversaw the network and the studio, and when this change happened, it was a chance to let the winds of change blow through the organization and bring Channing to the table with all of her ideas and her energy and her collaborative spirit, and also to bring Patrick to the table with all his dynamism and his teamwork and all his ideas.

Dungey: Patrick and I have worked together very closely for many, many years; we have a great working relationship. We have built many terrific series together on the air, and I look forward to this, I think it’s going to be better for the future of the company as a whole to be working side by side with him.

What kinds of shows are you looking for? There’s talk that you’re going to be looking for more procedurals?

Sherwood: Let me just set the record straight on that; that is wildly overblown. We’re not sitting here talking about genres here; we’re not talking about more of X or less of Y, these are Channing’s decisions and these are going to be Patrick’s decisions. What we want to do is what’s going to be great for our network business and our studio business, and we’re going to make decisions with everything on the table about how to drive growth here and also around the world.

Dungey: These conversations are all taking place in certain terms a higher level sense because we’ve already, to a certain extent, charted a course with the development season. The pilots have been ordered and we’re making them and we’ll evaluate them all come May, and I think by that point we’ll have a lot more of our strategic thinking in place for where we’re continuing to take the company in the years to come.

There’s been a lot of criticism of the gap strategy of taking shows off the air. Is that something that’s going to be off the table going forward?

Dungey: Everything’s on the table; we’re discussing, we’re looking at everything — the things that have worked, the things that haven’t worked, we’re looking at all the different challenges and opportunities that exist. As we look toward putting the schedule together in May and what comes after that, I think we’re gonna be engaged in a lot of different discussions.

Shonda Rhimes is clearly a tentpole of your schedule, but are you looking towards developing the next Shonda Rhimes?

Dungey: What I want ABC to be is a fantastic home for creative, talented people, and for us to be able to support them in bringing their ideas to the screen. So we’re always looking for new talents who are exciting and dynamic and have a real point of view.

Sherwood: We talk sometimes about how The Walt Disney Company is one of the most hospitable properties around the world, and we feel like we want to be in the hospitality business for talent and turn this into a place where the most creative people want to come and work and have the best experience. And again as your own reporting I’m sure has borne out, Channing has an extraordinary reputation as a magnet for talent; she’s amazing with creative people; she is legendary for her thoughtful, penetrating and incisive notes and comments about the work, and I think as I’ve gotten to know folks in the last couple of years here, I would hear over and over about how Channing is the person we want to work with; Channing is a person I want to spend time with; Channing is the person who I know is going to make this idea even better; and I think as we try to make ABC even more hospitable to talent and as more of a beacon to talent, Channing is going to be a great leader.

What do you think defines an ABC show?

Dungey: I think it’s intelligent, emotional, character-rich storytelling — at the core, I think those are the most important elements, and I think they can be found across all of our dayparts. That’s what, for me, ABC really stands for.

How is Samie Kim Falvey (EVP of comedy development) going to factor into your new role?

Dungey: She’s fantastic and to be jumping into this role in the middle of pilot season, she’s been giving me a crash course in all things comedy, bringing me up to speed on all the pilots and educating me about the talent. She’s a great friend, a fantastic ally and I look forward to continuing to have fantastic success in the comedy side of things with Samie at the helm.

What defines an ABC comedy?

Dungey: That part we’re still figuring out a little bit — again, 72 hours in the role. [Laughs.]

What do you think is the biggest learning curve ahead of you?

Dungey: I don’t mean to keep coming back to the fact that this has all come on really suddenly, it’s one of those things where every single minute I’m learning new aspects about what the job entails. To be really honest with you, I think the whole first year is gonna be a big learning curve in a lot of respects because I’m gonna be dealing with a lot of new things, not least of which is putting on an upfront, that’s a whole new avenue for me — there’s going to be lots to learn and there are elements of it that maybe feel a little bit daunting, but for the most part it feels really exciting.

Sherwood: Channing’s a natural and she’s got the whole organization rallying behind her, both within ABC and across Disney Channel, Freeform, the whole company is rooting for her and there are some transitions and some new things for her, but as I said, she’s a natural and I can’t wait to see you in May on the stage, Channing.

When you look across the other broadcast networks, what do you think they’re doing right that you can take a cue from?

Dungey: I feel like Fox did “Grease” really right, I thought that was fantastic — it was so well mounted, well-executed, the performances were great and it had a real sense of fun. We were talking a lot about that; you felt the energy coming right through the screen into your living room and I thought they delivered on that in a tremendous way. In terms of CBS, I think that the consistency for them, it feels like they have a really clear sense of who they are and what they want, and they’re able to keep delivering very consistently on their brand which is really terrific, and I think NBC has taken some really smart and interesting routes in the things that they’ve done. They were the first to open up the live playbook for everybody, but I’m also a little envious of their “Chicago” brand that they’ve now been able to unveil on so many nights of the week.

Does that mean you’ll be trying out some live programming?

Dungey: We’re talking about a lot of different things, but that is one thing that’s definitely worth exploring — everything’s on the table at this point.

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