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How ABC Pulled Off a Stealth Transition for Channing Dungey and Karey Burke

Channing Dungey called a meeting Friday of ABC’s top executives and revealed to them that she would step down as the network’s entertainment president. Within an hour, Disney went public with the news that Dungey would be succeeded by Karey Burke, head of programming for ABC’s sibling cabler Freeform.

The news was not a surprise to those who know Dungey, who had been wrestling with the decision on whether to stay at ABC or move on when her contract ended early next year, three years after she was named ABC Entertainment president in February 2016.

But the news still generated a shockwave within ABC. Anxiety has already been high at the network as Disney prepares to close its takeover of 21st Century Fox, which will bring the arrival of Fox’s Peter Rice and Dana Walden as the new senior management team.

“Everyone is devastated,” one insider told Variety. “There’s a reason Channing was so beloved and respected around town.”

Sources present tell Variety that Dungey gave no indication when speaking to her executive team what her next move would be. She expressed admiration for Rice, who will lead all non-sports TV operations; and Walden, who will oversee ABC, cable channel Freeform, and the enlarged TV studio operation.

Dungey was offered a new contract and encouraged to stay, but chose not to be part of the new regime.

Insiders emphasized that there is no ill will toward Burke, a seasoned TV executive who has been a member of the extended Disney TV family at Freeform since 2014. A source close to the situation said the discussions with Dungey and Burke began about a month ago. Rice and Walden were involved in the process even though neither of them have formally started their new jobs at Disney.

Dungey occupied a unique position within the Disney-ABC Television Group and in the industry at large. A 14-year veteran of ABC, she rose to the position of entertainment president in 2016 after the departure of Paul Lee, on the strength of her record leading drama development for the network. The shows that she helped bring to air, particularly Shonda Rhimes’ “Scandal” and “How to Get Away With Murder,” came to define an era for ABC. The first African-American executive to lead a broadcast network, her public profile grew this year when she led the decision to cancel “Roseanne” — last season’s highest-rated TV show — soon after star Roseanne Barr’s racist comments on Twitter ignited a firestorm of criticism. Dungey then worked quickly with executive producer Tom Werner to develop a spinoff, “The Conners,” designed to capitalize on the show’s popularity by keeping the core cast in place, minus Barr, who voluntarily gave up her rights to benefit financially from the new series.

“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,” Dungey told Variety in August.We were able to come to a place where everybody felt comfortable and good about that.”

Though Dungey’s departure, effective immediately, surprised her team, it comes at a time when ABC insiders are just beginning to experience the change expected to come with the Fox acquisition. In October, the network’s comedy chief, Jamila Hunter, departed to join Kenya Barris’ production company. Barris and Rhimes both in the last year and a half negotiated early exits from their overall deals at ABC Studios to score lucrative new agreements with Netflix — delivering substantive blows to ABC’s brand and its development pipeline.

What Dungey does next is, for now, a question. She is a popular executive with admired programming taste and deep talent relationships — particularly with Rhimes, whose Netflix development slate is bigger than some cable channels’, and could benefit from a seasoned executive hand working with the producer.

Sources close to the situation emphasized that the decision to depart ABC was entirely Dungey’s. She is known to have had a close relationship with Disney chairman-CEO Bob Iger who is said to have assured her that she would have a place at ABC or Disney in the post-Fox realignment. Dungey has expressed a desire to be closer to the production process, having come up at ABC through the studio side.

Burke, meanwhile, comes into ABC with the benefit of experience as both a buyer and seller. She worked at NBC during the “Must-See TV” heyday, starting out as an assistant in the early 1990s and rising to exec VP of primetime series before leaving as part of a broader shakeup of the network in 2003.

Burke then partnered with Ashton Kutcher and Jason Goldberg in Katalyst Films, which was active in digital entertainment early on as well as traditional TV. Katalyst for a time had an overall deal with 20th Century Fox TV when that studio was headed by Walden, who has known Burke through business and social circles for some time.

In 2010, Burke teamed with director Todd Holland in the Dark Toy production banner. That company punched above its weight in landing two NBC comedy series orders — the Matthew Perry comedy “Go On” and sitcom “Free Agents” — in a short time. Burke’s time as a producer tasked with selling shows to networks will be invaluable as she takes on the challenge of keeping ABC in the game at a time when content costs are going through the roof and top talent deals have hit the eye-popping nine-figure range.

Burke’s work at Freeform impressed Walden and Rice, both in the quality of programming the cable has generated on her watch and the leadership she demonstrated in building her programming and marketing team at Freeform.

Dungey’s stature at ABC has only grown in the past 12 months since the Fox transaction became a reality. A source noted that Dungey was focused on making sure her executives were well positioned for after the merger and was incredibly gracious as the conversations with Burke accelerated.

Also impressive was the fact that news of the Dungey-Burke transition kept quiet until ABC released the news around 2 p.m. PT on Friday. That ability to keep a tight lid on information involving such a high-level shuffle reflected the Disney ethos, in contrast to the Fox culture where information and gossip  has traditionally been much more porous through the Century City lot.

“They knew how to handle it in a way that would be very stealth,” said one Fox executive who will be making the transition to Disney. “It was very impressive.”

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