The media brand whose identity is having no identity has just hired an executive who made her name on her taste.
Netflix’s news Monday that Channing Dungey was entering the company in a newly created role as vice president of original content would seem to be a step forward for a company whose vast volume of productions share nothing but the platform on which they air. “The Crown,” “BoJack Horseman,” “Santa Clarita Diet,” and “The Chilling Adventures of Sabrina” (to name but four titles picked at random) are shows that could only share an outlet that made breadth a core part of its mission. By contrast, at ABC, where she served as entertainment president from February 2016 until last month, Dungey can be said to have pursued a unified vision of the network’s identity, shifting toward a middle America-friendly slate of programming that minted a few genuine hits — the short-lived “Roseanne” and the promising medical franchise “The Good Doctor.”
Not everything that happened during Dungey’s tenure worked: ABC’s ratings woes still haven’t stabilized, and the volubility of Roseanne Barr on social media doomed what had looked like the first piece of a network rebuilding strategy. But, crucially, Dungey was an executive with a vision that went beyond simply winning; her ABC was a place one understood as standing for certain concepts. Lacking the boundless resources of a cash-flush streamer, boxed in by dwindling broadcast audiences, and working with a few nightly hours of prime-time rather than the expansiveness of the web, Dungey made canny choices to position ABC as the default network for folks between the coasts.
Of course, those people are just like anyone else, viewers and creators alike — they’re shifting their entrenched viewing habits and migrating to Netflix. Who needs to compromise on a show for the whole family when each member of that family can watch their own favorite show on their own respective device? Netflix’s something-for-everyone strategy has made it into a safe landing place for any conceivable viewer, even as it’s helped erode the perhaps-archaic idea that a television outlet is well-served by a recognizable identity.
It’s impossible to speculate about what, exactly, Dungey will do at Netflix, a service whose expansiveness of programming is nearly matched by its opacity. A recent executive session at the Television Critics Association press tour saw Cindy Holland, the Netflix veteran who will now work alongside Dungey, shed little light on her decision-making process, and much press around Netflix emphasizes the degree to which programming is determined by catering to data-driven subsets of the audience rather than attempting to find consensus hits.
But it seems notable that Dungey is entering as high-profile creators recently snapped up — not only Ryan Murphy but also former ABC-based showrunners Shonda Rhimes and Kenya Barris — work towards showing the world their first series for the creatively appealing commercial-free environment of a streamer.
Supervising a broad spectrum of series as different as “Narcos” and “Orange Is the New Black” takes one sort of talent; working on a suite of programs that share the vision of a single creator takes another, a skill set perhaps best honed at a broadcaster beholden to an image and an idea of the purpose it serves in the marketplace. That Dungey has strong relationships with two of the three major showrunners Netflix has recently bet hugely on is another point in her favor. Dungey’s former ABC showrunnersRhimes and Barris, as well as Murphy, incidentally, are the sort of creators whose original work is uniquely hard to categorize. There are few comparable programs to, say, a Murphy show that aren’t themselves made by Murphy. Data, then, can perhaps only do so much when it comes to guiding his decisions.
There’s a lot an executive like Dungey can do for Netflix over and above brand-building: For one thing, her time at ABC Studios is an asset in the programming and production process, one that for a place with as many irons in the fire as Netflix is surely complicated. But Dungey is, too, known for her ability to transmit a signal through the noisiness of the present-day media landscape, and may help Netflix transition, in its quest towards star showrunner-driven-projects, toward judgment informed by data but not defined by it, and towards a sense of Netflix’s identity for the first time in the streamer’s existence. Some portion of Netflix may well come to have the sort of brand executives like Dungey help craft, and that Netflix had — until hiring her — seemed to have little time for. As Netflix prepares to ramp up suites of programming built by creators whose taste and crispness of vision have helped show viewers what they might want instead of catering to what they already know they do, there might just come to be a Netflix within Netflix that evinces a bit of that most old-fashioned element: sensibility.