When Channing Dungey was tapped in February to replace Paul Lee as entertainment president of ABC, it was on the strength of her performance as one of Lee’s top lieutenants. As the network’s drama chief, Dungey developed the saucy prime-time soaps that have become ABC’s standard bearers. With the launch last season of the Shonda Rhimes-produced “How to Get Away With Murder” in a prime-time block with Rhimes’ “Grey’s Anatomy” and “Scandal,” ABC created a signature night of television, one that stands as the best argument for Dungey’s qualification to lead a broadcast network.
But just as Dungey was ascending to the top job, the shows that got her there were in the process of tanking. Ranked last this season among the Big Four networks in viewers 18-49, ABC’s poor ratings greased the skids for Lee’s exit. And ABC’s most high-profile dramas have done nothing to help since returning from midseason hiatus. Neither did the premiere last week of “The Catch,” from Rhimes, the network’s most important producing partner, which opened to a wan 1.2 rating. Instead those disappointing performances have exposed vulnerabilities in ABC’s programming strategy—vulnerabilities that Dungey will need to address as she works to turn the network around.
The problems surfaced in February, just weeks before Lee was shown the door. Under Lee, ABC scheduled three-month midseason hiatuses for many of its dramas. In the past, viewers—teased by midseason-finale cliffhangers—would return in force when new episodes began to air in spring. (When “Grey’s” and “Scandal” returned from hiatus last year, they drew better ratings in Nielsen’s advertiser-coveted 18-49 than they did in their midseason finales—up 17% and 16%, respectively. Ratings for “Murder” were flat.)
But when those shows made their most recent midseason premieres Feb. 11, they reversed course. “Grey’s” was down 4% from its last original episode. The two younger Rhimes shows were harder hit: “Scandal” declined by 13%, “Murder” by 22%. Other ABC dramas, including “Once Upon a Time,” “Marvel’s Agents of SHIELD” and new series “Quantico,” have also struggled following their midseason breaks.
Midseason freshmen haven’t fared any better. Along with “The Catch,” viewership for “The Family” has been disappointing, down to a 0.6 rating for its most recent episode. And “Of Kings and Prophets” was pulled from the line-up after just two outings.
Except for “Grey’s,” all of those shows were developed by Dungey. Their sudden ratings drop-offs, in addition to raising creative concerns, betray a lack of diversity in ABC’s drama portfolio. If viewers are beginning to tire of the serialized prime-time soaps that ABC helped popularize — in particular those produced by Rhimes — ABC has little else to offer them.
Dungey will have the opportunity to correct that, starting with the current development cycle. But with a slate developed under Lee, Dungey will be choosing primarily from a collection of female-led, serialized soaps — the kind of drama that the network has focused on to the near-complete exclusion of all others.
There are exceptions, including “Time After Time,” “The Jury” and “Designated Survivor” — the last of which, a political thriller starring Kiefer Sutherland, received a straight-to-series order. And season 2 of “American Crime,” an ensemble anthology that bears closer resemblance to the naturalistic dramas found on cable than it does to its broadcast brethren, has been a critical success.
Meanwhile, with control of the schedule, Dungey will be able to decide whether to jettison Lee’s “gap strategy,” which appears to have given viewers time to reconsider their commitments to many of ABC’s most popular shows. Wooing them back may be the biggest challenge that she and ABC face.