ABC Changes Gears (and Leadership) in Bid to Reverse Decline

ABC Network Shakeup
Dave Murray for Variety

There’s a new regime at the helm of ABC, with a clear, if challenging, mission ahead: reversing the slide that has mired the network in fourth place in the key 18-49 demographic. Newly anointed president of entertainment Channing Dungey, previously head of drama, and her boss, Ben Sherwood, president of the Disney/ABC TV group, have already signaled to the industry that they’ll be making key strategic moves to bolster the network’s standing.

The first step was the timing of the regime change, with development season in mid-swing. “Someone saw an opportunity and made their move,” said one insider, referring to Sherwood, who’d famously long butted heads with Paul Lee.

Dungey admitted to Variety that her new appointment came as “a little bit of a surprise” but said it afforded her an “incredible opportunity” to exert her creative influence over the pilots in progress.

As head of drama, she’s already familiar with the hourlongs in development; given her close working relationship with comedy head Samie Kim Falvey, she has been getting a “crash course” in the half-hours. Sherwood is relying on Dungey’s reputation for good taste to derail the decidedly off-kilter projects that predecessor Lee embraced, like musical “Galavant,” which he renewed despite middling ratings performance. But her true test will come when it’s time to make decisions about which shows to pick up. “You can’t do a ton at this point to course-correct,” says a source. “It’s really about what happens in May.”

“Channing has an extraordinary reputation as a magnet for talent.”
Ben Sherwood

Year-round scheduling strategy will be key as well. Lee’s critics point to his “gap strategy” — giving shows a three-month break — as the final nail in his coffin. The midseason return of the powerhouse Shonda Rhimes TGIT lineup was a ratings disappointment, down double digits for “Scandal” and “How to Get Away With Murder.” Amid a crowded landscape, viewers’ attention had wandered elsewhere. “As we look toward putting the schedule together in May and what comes after that, I think we’re going to be engaged in a lot of different discussions,” Dungey said.

Sources said ABC is looking for more procedurals — which would stand up to repeated airing — though Sherwood dismissed such talk as “overblown.” Dungey acknowledged, though, that she was impressed with Fox’s recent “Grease: Live,” and that the network would be considering live programming.

While much of ABC’s success hails from Shondaland, Sherwood will be looking to Dungey to attract new showrunners. “Channing has an extraordinary reputation as a magnet for talent,” he said. “She is legendary for her thoughtful, penetrating and incisive notes and comments about the work.”

Multiple producers interviewed by Variety agreed. “She makes every project she touches better, and her choices always seem to be made out of passion, not fear,” said Shondaland partner Betsy Beers. “Once Upon a Time” producers Edward Kitsis and Adam Horowitz credit Dungey with giving them one of the best notes they ever received: saving Prince Charming, who’d been slated for death in the pilot. “Channing pointed out that for a series about hope, there’s not a lot of hope in killing him,” Kitsis said.

The new chain of command — with ABC Studios head Patrick Moran reporting directly to Sherwood — not only solidifies Sherwood’s authority but reflects the importance of the studio as a business unit. “Criminal Minds,” for example, which the studio produces for CBS, is a big money-maker for Disney in syndication. “(The restructuring) makes enormous sense both for the people at the network who can focus on what they’re doing and the people at the studio who need the autonomy to do what they do even if they are making a large percentage of their shows for another network,” says Mark Gordon, who produces “Criminal Minds,” “Quantico” and “Grey’s Anatomy.”

With the studio divisions having eclipsed the networks as profit centers for their respective parent congloms, such restructuring is a trend among the Big Four nets. The rapid growth of worldwide program licensing opportunities — revved up by SVOD expansion of the past few years — and the shrinking of the networks’ core advertising base have together tipped the scales. The network serves as a vital launch pad for shows, but the profits are in after-market sales for all but the highest-rated primetime series.

There’s inevitable tension among networks and studios even when those units are under the same roof. When programming and production questions arose for ABC-ABC Studios programs, Lee, by multiple accounts, tended to favor the network’s interests. “It’s hard to be impartial as things comes up,” said a source. “Hopefully this achieves a certain degree of objectivity that will only help the studio, which will only in turn help the network.”

The shakeup at ABC comes at a time when all of Disney/ABC TV Group operations are coming under scrutiny from Wall Street. Concerns about cord-cutting and rising costs have chipped away at ESPN’s image as an invincible cash cow. ABC has been the subject of periodic speculation about whether it’s still a fit with Disney’s larger emphasis on leveraging the power of high-wattage brands: Marvel, Pixar, Lucasfilm, ESPN et al. Lee in recent years had emphasized the effort to build ABC’s brand in phrases like “smart-with-heart” comedies and the female-led “TGIT” sudsers.

But Dungey shied away from any clever one-liners. Asked what defines an ABC show, she said simply: “I think it’s intelligent, emotional, character-rich storytelling.”

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  1. Their ABC says:

    Doesn’t take a genius to see why ratings are going down the toilet. I’ve deleted this channel from my tv signal list. I find their news & current affairs politically one-sided & offensive. Question is, do they care? After all – they’re clearly not accountable to anyone.

  2. Donna Sheridan says:

    I can understand why your ratings are going down the toilet, the way that you CANCEL shows on a whim, Like NASHVILLE, WHY ARE YOU CANCELING THIS SHOW ???????????? EXCELLENT SHOW, BUT YET YOU CANCEL IT. BUT, YOU KEEP TRASH LIKE MISTRESS’S, BACHELOR, BACHELORETTE, SCANDAL, AND OTHER TRASH THAT I WILL NOT WAST MY TIME WATCHING !!!!
    KEEP IT UP AND YOUR RATINGS ARE GONNA GET WORSE.

  3. Janet says:

    The reason for the double-digit decline for “Scandal” and “How To Get Away With Murder” is the disastrous midseason finale of “Scandal” which outraged millions of viewers. Shonda Rhimes’ arrogance and rude attitude aren’t helping any. She tweeted to her fan base “If you don’t like the show, then don’t watch it.” That tweet was picked up and circulated all over the Internet and millions of viewers took her at her word. Scandal is sinking rapidly and pulling HTGAWM down with it. Also, HTGAWM is facing serious competition from “Shades of Blue” in the same time slot on NBC. ABC could help HTGAWM by moving it up to 9 pm and pushing Scandal back to 10. That would give HTGAWM a strong lead-in from Grey’s Anatomy, which has a loyal fan base. As for Scandal, the viewers are so incensed at how Rhimes has disrespected them and destroyed the show that I’m not sure anything can save it at this point.

  4. Jacques Strappe says:

    Is ABC really in fourth for non-sports programming as well? Not airing any football will all but guarantee the network is never number one but it did win the coveted 18-49 demo last season, if I’m not mistaken for non sports programming. I get that programming to the masses is a bottom line business. Sadly, creative, well made and critically acclaimed shows like Galavant, American Crime and Agent Carter are almost certain to be ratings duds with a broad mass audience. And even though I still think the bridge show strategy embraced by Paul Lee is smart for serialized shows since they don’t repeat well, absence doesn’t necessarily make the heart grow fonder for the dramas when they return. Some of the horrible choices for TGIT gap programming like The Taste and My Diet is Better Than Yours were head scratching disasters. Bottom line is that I think Paul Lee, while far from perfect, remains one of the better network presidents, especially for taking risks and injecting some creativity and diversity into network programming. My biggest fear with this regime change is indeed ABC taking the well traveled, boring and creatively bankrupt road of procedural dramas. Ugghh. If that’s the case, it is a compelling reason to watch Netflix exclusively.

    • Mike M says:

      Sherwood talks “creativity”, then demands the opposite via the over worn, tired, no brain required procedural path. Testing boundaries is where true creativity lies, forging the future of TV… not living in the past.

      Lee knew/knows this and tried so hard to fit that into a big networks demands for profit. American Crime just MAY stick, given the 2nd season is now generating really solid viewer buzz and SoMed comment (and not just critical / awards recognition as season 1 did), but there will be nothing new like it made by ABC – it’s incredibly doubtful there will be any more real “risks” in creativity from this network in the foreseeable future.

      And yet those “risks”, are exactly what viewers are truly screaming out for. Breaking Bad, Mad Men and Walking Dead have made a network – just three shows; what more proof can be needed. But it’s a long term strategy, it requires faith and perseverance.

      The ultimate Lee insult will no doubt be that at a time when musical based shows push on into their own, Galavant will be cancelled, just when it too would have turned the popularity corner (as with AC). The second season was magnificent in so many respects, and creativity brilliant. The audience just needed time to catch up to the vision, and it is, but it will be too late. And you can’t help but get the feeling Sherwood would have killed it anyway, simply because it had Lee’s name on it.

      Dungey has to keep Sherwood happy, and rather than relinquish his attempt to stranglehold Lee and trust her, he is tightening the grip even further. That certainly won’t pull ABC out of 4th, unless you call a “course correction” steering the ship directly at the ice berg.

      Because there’s only one thing the procedural is being “creative” at doing in 2016: killing network television.

  5. nerdrage says:

    Firing Paul Lee is just rearranging the deck chairs you-know-where.

  6. therealeverton says:

    “the key 18-49 demographic”

    Honestly I feel like this isn’t as key as they think it is and they (industry~) is stuck in an outdated idea.

    • I agree, they are clinging to an old formula, just like when they (and other networks) refused to pay attention to On Demand and online viewing which turned out to be a massive mistake. They need to stay with originality in their thinking with more risks like Galavant and shedding yet another prime time soap opera. Soaps and zombies have been done to death, they’re over.

      • So Disney just made a deal to give Netflix truckloads of programming plus original content. But I don’t think that Netflix goes for the “key” demographics.

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