A decade ago, the ABC drama series “Scandal” was headed for cancellation after it struggled through a little-watched seven-episode first season. Dungey, then head of drama programming for ABC Entertainment, had already fought for executive producer Shonda Rhimes to cast a Black actor in the lead. In the spring of 2012, Dungey made an impassioned case for renewal to a roomful of Disney top brass, including then-CEO Bob Iger and then-Disney/ABC TV Group chief Anne Sweeney.
“I went into that room and said, ‘As a Black woman, I am speaking out in favor of this show, written and created by a Black woman and starring a Black woman. It deserves a second season,” Dungey recalls.
“Scandal” went on to run six more years as a buzzy hit that made Kerry Washington a star.
That rallying cry has stuck with Dungey during the turmoil of the past few years and the resurgence of social justice movements around race, gender and equity concerns.
“You’re not going to have storytelling that is meaningfully inclusive and diverse if you don’t have those people who are in the position of making these decisions,” Dungey says. “It’s more than just checking the box. It’s my job as a senior leader to make sure our writers’ rooms are populated the right way and that our director slate looks the way we want it to look — and to have those hard conversations when it isn’t that way.”
It’s that spirit of doing the hard work that has drawn Dungey to Los Angeles-based Children’s Institute, where she is a board member. The nonprofit organization specializes in cutting through red tape to get children and families services they need, from early childhood education programs to parental support groups to aid for those involved in the juvenile justice system. The nonprofit works with about 30,000 families a year through its programs in public schools and at multiple Children’s Institute centers in the Los Angeles area.
Dungey became involved with Children’s Institute after the death of her close friend and former ABC colleague, Suzanne Patmore-Gibbs, who had been a board member. Patmore-Gibbs’ father asked Dungey to assume the board seat after his daughter died unexpectedly at the age of 50 in 2018.
Children’s Institute’s work to break the cycle of poverty for underprivileged families has been eye-opening for Dungey, who is also a founding board member of girls empowerment organization Step Up.
“What I love is that the services are both easily accessible and very hands-on for families who are in need,” she says of Children’s Institute. “I’m a big believer in where your journey begins really shapes the course of your life.”
Dungey’s path to Hollywood started in a suburb of Sacramento, where she grew up with her younger sister, actor Merrin Dungey. After high school, Channing Dungey attended UCLA, first as a political science major, but by junior year she switched to the School of Theater, Film and Television.
Graduating in 1991, she began to climb the ladder in a heady period for the movie business. She worked as a story editor at Steven Seagal’s Steamroller Prods. when that company was turning out action hits for Warner Bros. “You might remember that those movies weren’t long on story,” she quips, but “I was there two and a half years and worked on four movies.”
Then in 1993, Warner Bros. recruited Dungey as a creative executive at the studio, putting her on the path that would take her to the heights of executive leadership in Hollywood.
From her childhood growing up in a largely white area of Northern California, Dungey was well accustomed to being the only Black person in the room in many situations. But what she noticed after getting to the big leagues of Warner Bros. was how overwhelmingly male it was. “I came in when people were still routinely referring to women who were working in the business as ‘D girls,’” Dungey says.
She went on to achieve many firsts in her career, including becoming the first Black woman to serve as entertainment president of a Big Three network — at ABC from 2016 to 2018. Dungey’s return to Warner Bros. in January of this year (after two years as a VP at Netflix) is a milestone in more ways than one.
“When I meet young people who say, ‘You inspire me. I want to be you when I grow up’ — it’s humbling and flattering,” she says. “I’m grateful to be that person for the generation of women and girls behind me.”
Watch Channing Dungey’s full video for Variety’s “Uncovered” presented by Lifetime above.
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