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What Does the Fox Influx Mean for ABC?

The Foxes are raiding the Mouse House..

The Walt Disney Co. on Monday announced that the two longtime Fox executives will come aboard to head the media giant’s entertainment-television operations — Rice as chairman of Walt Disney Television, and Walden as his top lieutenant overseeing ABC, Freeform, and most of the new company’s studio units. They will be joined by a flotilla of key Fox execs, including FX’s John Landgraf, National Geographic’s Gary E. Knell, 20th Century Fox Television’s Jonnie Davis and Howard Kurtzman, and Fox 21’s Bert Salke.

The newbies’ arrival heralds a new era at Disney, one in which the company’s lucrative television business will shift from a traditional model focused on linear programming to one built to power forthcoming direct-to-consumer ventures. It also bodes uncertainty for the folks who have spent the last few years running that traditional model.

Disney’s purchase of ABC 22 years ago was a redefining move. But with the conglom set to launch a pair of new streaming services next year in a a bid to compete with Netflix, the mechanisms of ABC were clearly deemed insufficient to support the new venture. Central to the Fox acquisition are studios 20th Century Fox Television and Fox 21, which will now operate alongside ABC Studios, led by president Patrick Moran, with Walden overseeing all three. Sources tell Variety that there are no plans to combine the studio operations in the near future. Walden — long known for her strong relationships with talent — and others believe that smaller studio units are necessary in order to provide series and creators with the level of attention needed for them to flourish. The various studios’ relationships with one another would not be unlike what Fox 21 and 20th TV have now.

Prior to joining ABC, Moran spent years at 20th TV in development working for Walden and her longtime exec partner, Gary Newman. But although the new Disney TV now has a functioning org chart at the uppermost levels, it is unclear how ABC Studios would differentiate itself from 20th TV, arguably the most robust TV studio in Hollywood. In a post-acquisition world, all Disney’s studio operations old and acquired are expected to focus almost single-mindedly on feeding content to the company’s owned linear and digital platforms. That means that ABC Studios and 20th TV, which produce similar kinds of content, will be competing to sell to the same small set of networks and platforms, including ABC.

At the Alphabet network, Channing Dungey has seen her profile rise since beginning her tenure as ABC Entertainment president two years ago. That lift has been fueled in large part by “Roseanne” — first the strong ratings performance of the comedy’s revival season, then Dungey’s deft handling of star Roseanne Barr’s racist remarks earlier this year. Dungey, the only African-American to ever run a broadcast network, was praised for her swift decision to pull the plug “Roseanne” and for forging the deal with producers to continue the show under a different title without Barr’s involvement.

Dungey, who is more than two years into her current contract, told Variety in August when asked about her future at ABC, “I very much enjoy what I do and would be happy to continue doing it. I have not yet had any conversations with senior management about next steps, but right now it’s business as usual for me.” But with the influx of Fox execs, Dungey will have another management layer over her. In the past, she reported directly to Disney-ABC Television Group president Ben Sherwood, who is now set to depart the company when the Fox deal is finalized. Under the new structure, she will report to Walden, who will in turn report to Sherwood’s replacement, Rice. The same goes for Moran, Freeform president Tom Ascheim, and ABC-owned TV stations group president Wendy McMahon.

ABC sources characterize Dungey as open-minded about the new structure. But given her recent successes, there would be no shortage of potential suitors should she decide to test the free-agent market.

Meanwhile, there is no indication yet as to where inevitable redundancies will be identified once the two operations begin to come together on lower tiers. But sources tell Variety that fewer positions on the TV side, where Disney will produce a massive amount of content for new and old platforms, will likely be fewer than in film, where questions remain about how committed the Mouse House is to continuing to produce the type of niche content generated by divisions such as Fox Searchlight.

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