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ABC Entertainment Boss Talks ‘Roseanne,’ Kenya Barris, Fox Merger

ABC paneled several new series Tuesday at the Television Critics Association summer press tour. ABC Entertainment president Channing Dungey spoke with Variety about firing Roseanne Barr from “Roseanne,” Kenya Barris’ exit from ABC Studios, and how the upcoming acquisition by Disney of the bulk of 21st Century Fox might affect her future at the network.

There was a lot of pretty vile stuff in Roseanne’s Twitter feed going back several years. Had you not considered that something like what happened with the Valerie Jarrett tweet could happen, given that history?
We spoke with Roseanne and the producers at the beginning about her past history with the understanding that she came into this with a desire to share some very important stories, to shine a light on a part of the country that hadn’t had a spotlight on it in a while, and she was very much saying that she was aware of her behavior in the past and was very much looking forward to starting with a clean slate here. I am a believer in second chances, and we all felt like we were going to put our best foot forward and hope for a good result. And it did not end up that way.

With “The Conners,” what were your concerns going into those negotiations, and how did the producers address those concerns?
The specifics of it would have to be addressed with Tom Werner, because all of the actor deals rest with the studios. We were very clear about the fact that if we were going to move forward, Roseanne Barr would need to have no involvement with the show. We were able to come to a place where everybody felt comfortable and good about that. But with the specifics as to the conversations that were held between Roseanne and Tom, you would have to ask him.

There were creative differences with Kenya Barris over the episode of “Black-ish” that didn’t air, and there was speculation since that time about whether he would stay at ABC Studios or not. What can you say about what happened with that episode, and whether it was a catalyst for him severing his relationship with ABC?
First of all, Kenya’s broader relationship with the Disney-ABC Television Group goes on, because he still is very involved in “Black-ish,” he has “Grown-ish,” he has a new show, “Besties.” So there still is an ongoing dynamic with Kenya. I think creatively for writers there is a cycle and I think part of what happened for Kenya, outside of this episode — because with this episode, we had all been excited to have this one stand alongside episodes like “Lemons” and “Juneteenth,” and ultimately we all felt, Kenya, the studio, the network, that we hadn’t got to this place creatively where we were telling the story in a way that felt like it could stand alongside those, so the decision was made to shelve it. I think, and you would have to speak to him directly, he had come to a place creatively where creatively he wanted to do some things outside of what broadcast allows you to do, where you don’t have to worry about act breaks, and you don’t have to worry about standards and practices, and I understand that.

Can you talk about the decision to bring “American Idol” back for a second season? Its ratings were probably not on the higher end of expectations but also not at the lower end, then it showed some pickup toward the end of the season.
That’s a perfect analysis of it, meaning we had certain expectations, but we also wanted to be realistic within those expectations. And within the broadcast live-plus-same day universe, those numbers were still pretty robust. We were very excited about what happened when we started doing our live shows, because things did really pick up. There was great engagement. We’re hoping this year to do even more of the live shows. I think also the first time you’re doing anything, there are some kinks that you need to work out. I think that there are some tweaks that we’ll make to our format going forward that I hope will make the second season even stronger. We love our judges. Katy, Luke, and Lionel each brought something really unique to the dynamic. I think for them you could see by the end of the season that their relationship with each other, the talent was really starting to blossom. So for us it made sense, because it did feel like we were ending with more momentum to try a second season and see how it goes.

We’re starting to get a sense of how Disney and its divisions might look after the acquisition of Fox. Do you foresee yourself continuing to lead ABC long-term?
Look, I love my job. I love my team. There’s nothing that’s more exciting to me than reading a great script and getting to order that to pilot or watching a great pilot and getting to schedule it. So 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.

Have you talked with 20th Century Fox TV about working with them more closely on next season’s development given that the business relationship with them is about to change?
We haven’t. There are a lot of very specific regulations about how you can engage. So for the moment, we’ve just been looking at 20th the same way we’ve been looking at Warners and Sony and our other outside partners. I will say that their team has come in really hot. They were aggressive, they’ve got a lot of great material, so that’s been exciting to see.

We’re also starting to get a picture of what Disney’s streaming service might look like. It seems like a lot of resources that might otherwise be going to ABC are going there. Do you feel like you’re in competition with that service?
Not so much yet. They’ve not yet started to make as big a push into comedy as they have into drama and some of the alternative stuff, but I would characterize their dramas as more PG, PG-13, where we’re still doing really R-rated stuff. So at the moment, it kind of helps you divide a little bit what goes where.

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