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A Ceiling Shattered

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By T. L. Stanley

Published Jan 1, 2017 8:00 AM


ABC’s new head of entertainment is determined to win with a diverse lineup of TV shows that reflect what America really looks like.


Photos by Rebecca Cabage.

To Channing Dungey ’91, running a television network isn’t just a job — it’s more like a calling. A self-described TV junkie, Dungey has helped bring addictive hits like Scandal, Quantico and American Crime to the small screen. As the new president of ABC Entertainment and the first African-American woman to hold that post at any of the Big Four networks, Dungey aims to pull ABC out of its fourth-place doldrums with an upcoming remake of the classic coming-of-age flick Dirty Dancing, reimagined as a three-hour musical; Kiefer Sutherland’s conspiracy thriller Designated Survivor, an early hit with more than 15 million cumulative viewers; and the civil rights series When We Rise. A top priority is continuing to diversify the schedule — one of her first full-season orders was for the new family comedy Speechless, which features an actor with cerebral palsy playing a character with that disability.

Q: Did you consider at the time that your appointment in February 2016 would make C-suite history?

A: I don’t think I even fully processed it in that way, judging by the fact that I wasn’t expecting it to be news to the degree that it was news. Now I can reflect, and it makes me happy because I didn’t have that many role models growing up who looked like me. There were very few in movies or TV or music or government. And now, my 3-year-old daughter has examples like Beyoncé and Oprah and Shonda. If I’m lucky enough to have people looking up to me, to have broken some ground, that’s incredible.

Q: You gave your first commencement speech to your alma mater, the UCLA School of Theater, Film and Television, in June. What was that like for you, and what was your advice to the grads?

A: I didn’t realize how emotional it would be. It was 25 years to the day since I’d graduated myself, and my parents had been there back then, and they were there again. It was very special. I narrowed it down to three big points as I shared my own career experiences. I said to always take the meeting, even if you don’t think it’s the right opportunity, because you never know what doors could open from that. I told them to believe that their voices and opinions have value and not to suppress them because of doubt or fear. And I said not to be afraid of failing. The attitude should be, “Let’s give it a shot.” So many things we do in television can be seen as failures — pilots that don’t make it on the air, shows that last for only a few episodes and get canceled — but there are some valuable lessons that we can learn from every experience.

Q: Tell us about teaching Developing the Drama Pilot in the graduate program at TFT.

A: I go back to campus in the fall and I’m reinvigorated all over again. I love the students’ sense of optimism. It’s nice to be around people who see the whole world as a wide-open freeway. Their enthusiasm and energy is infectious. And I think it’s important to encourage people who are interested in TV to pursue a career in TV. I like to encourage others to follow that path.

Q: How did TFT help prep you for your career?

A: It’s such a collaborative environment, and I was encouraged to try everything and get experience with all the disciplines — screenwriting, editing, cinematography. I learned so much about the process of working and collaborating with others. And that’s really inspired me along the way.

Q: What brought you to television after spending the early part of your career in film development on movies such as Queen of the Damned, Red Planet and The Big Bounce, among others?

A: I spent the better part of a decade in film, and it was great. But the shift to television was more where my personal appetites were leaning. I used to go to the movies every Friday night, and then, in the early 2000s, I realized I’d rather watch what was on my TiVo, like The Sopranos, Sex and the City, West Wing, than go to the multiplex. That’s about the time that movies were starting to be heavy on sequels and comic book adaptations and IP [intellectual property], and I just loved the freshness of the stories that were being told on TV. I love to read, and TV seemed more like a good book, with these incredible series unfolding like chapters in a novel.

Q: You’re also a dedicated small-screen fan yourself.

A: I’ve been a TV junkie for a long time, since I was a kid. My sister (actress Merrin Dungey ’93) and I used to audiotape shows before we had a VCR. That’s how devoted we were. And we used to rip through the fall TV Guide every season to see all the new shows and our favorites and plan out what we were going to watch. Our parents limited our TV viewing, so we had to choose carefully.

Q: How will ABC remake Dirty Dancing?

A: It’s not a live show, but it will be a three-hour scripted musical event where we’ve expanded the stories of a lot of the characters that we didn’t find out much about in the original. We’ve taken all the classic songs and fit those into a scripted narrative, and we’ve added three new songs. It’s in post-production now — we haven’t seen the first cut yet — and it’ll likely air [in the] spring.

Q: What does your daily information and media diet look like?

A: First thing, I check out the news feeds like The New York Times and The Wall Street Journal. I want to know what’s going on in the broader sense, but also in media and business. It’s important to me to be up to speed on all our programming, but I also want a sampling of what’s happening elsewhere on broadcast, cable, streaming. I need to have an understanding of what audiences are responding to. And for a curated source, I like Jason Hirschhorn’s newsletters (@MediaREDEF).

Q: What are some of the challenges in the TV business now and for you at ABC? What’s keeping you up at night?

A: There are more great shows available for consumption than ever before, which means the competition is intense. How do I get audiences to come when they have so many choices? And it’s not just about the linear schedule, because we’re living in a multiplatform universe and we’re figuring out what that means. We’re at an inflection point, and that’s when the most exciting things can happen. And you can’t have a job like this and do it in a serious way and not have it keep you up at night. It’s all about making decisions — some small, some big, some with immediate ramifications, some felt a lot later. I’m trying to be really thoughtful about doing that, seeking counsel from trusted advisers and facing it all with optimism and good humor.

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