ABC Upfront Introduces Channing Dungey, Hypes Kiefer Sutherland's Latest Act

The new entertainment president and boss Ben Sherwood look ahead, impress with 'Designated Survivor,' evangelize TV's value and, yes, make more 'Hamilton' jokes.
Courtesy of ABC
ABC entertainment president Channing Dungey
It's only been two days, but the bulk of the broadcast networks have now released their schedules and trotted out their stars and sizzle reels for buyers — ABC being the latest to take the upfront stage in New York on Tuesday evening after a season that saw it drop to No. 4 in the ratings and change leadership.

The network might have lacked a true freshman breakout last season — not that any broadcaster had one — but you wouldn't know it from the start of its David Geffen Hall presentation. Quantico star Priyanka Chopra danced her way down the aisle, making her way to the stage in a Rockette-worthy opening number that followed a video package spoofing her moderately successful Sunday drama.

This being a sales pitch, there was no acknowledgment of ABC's recent roadblocks (or the uphill path between the network and a ratings rebound), but present circumstances were not entirely ignored. Leave it to the annual roast from Jimmy Kimmel to address the elephant in the room. "This is like our family reunion ever year ... where's Uncle Paul?" he asked, referring to former entertainment topper Paul Lee. "You hate to see anyone, especially a British person, lose his dental plan."

As for the new programming, it was a relatively low-energy two hours, with trailers playing to a mix of casual clapping and a few spurts of sincere approval from the audience, with winners being the midseason Dirty Dancing telepic, comedy Speechless and drama Designated Survivor.

Here are four things to know from ABC's presentation:

Ben Sherwood Was the Unofficial Master of Ceremonies
Introduced as the network's commander-in-chief, Ben Sherwood trotted out onstage with the week's latest Hamilton joke (a Quantico: The Musical playbill flashed behind him) and a handful of promises. Among them: to wrap up ABC's upfront presentation "soonish," and to up both its viewership and its quality content output in the coming year. "This is a defining moment for our network and for television," he said, using the Lincoln Center platform to downplay the pitches from his Silicon Valley rivals. "TV works. And great TV works greatly ... nothing else even comes close." In addition to a few appropriately cheesy lines about the Walt Disney Co. making "magical" content and "connect" being the company's mission statement, he introduced and praised the woman, Channing Dungey, that he plucked to run the network three months earlier. Without referencing her predecessor Lee by name, Sherwood described Dungey as "the perfect combination of experience and also the kind of change we need for the future of ABC."

But This Week Is Also Channing's Coming-Out Party
Speaking of ABC's new entertainment president, Dungey came out onstage with an honest admission. "I'm a little nervous," she said, before sharing a personal story about how her love of TV dates back to childhood. She revealed to the sea of buyers that she'd sit by the TV and audio record her favorite shows (Charlie's Angels among them) so that she could enjoy them between episodes. It provided a natural segue to her thoughts about the power of strong storytelling: "Stories let you be the hero, the doctor, the lawyer, the gladiator," said Dungey. "They let you go on a journey." Before laying out the schedule and a collection of trailers for her batch of new shows — clips for movie event Dirty Dancing and Speechless seemed to draw some of the most enthusiastic applause inside the theater — Dungey stressed the network's continued commitment to family comedies, heartfelt dramas and a slate that showcases faces and stories that reflect the country at large.

ABC's Favorite Freshman? Designated Survivor, Duh
Given Fox's (and the buyers') enthusiasm for the 24 reboot, it's only fitting that ABC's biggest push is for Jack Bauer himself. Pricey Kiefer Sutherland vehicle Designated Survivor, which will air Wednesdays at 10 p.m. in the fall, got the presentation's prime closing slot — with a lengthy trailer and an appearance from Sutherland. The actor strolled on stage to note that, while he wasn't particularly keen on doing TV again, he was swayed by the script: "On page 25, I was like, 'Shit!' I was potentially holding the next 10 years of my life in my hands." That's quite ambitious, but the early reaction was strong. The preview hit a crescendo to the crowd's approving applause, which started out as merely polite for dramas Notorious and most midseason offerings and got a little warmer as the presentation wore on.

"No. 4" Doesn't Account for Co-Viewing or Engagement
Not even 30 hours into the weeklong dog-and-pony show and the math is already getting kind of fuzzy. It seems to be in every network's favor. For ABC, currently ranked last among the Big Four in adults 18-49, it marked a continued reliance on co-viewing, social engagement and the week's most consistent narrative — that digital is great, but it's nothing without premium TV content. After touting the network's roster of seven of the top 10 most co-viewed entertainment shows on television and a disproportionately engaged audience (see a pie chart about online shares that showed ABC occupying nearly half of the entire real estate, dwarfing the other four main broadcast networks), ABC sales & marketing president Geri Wang pointed to new stats on the viability of TV. Per an Accenture study, which followed $12 billion in advertiser spending over three years, increased spending on TV increased sales. "It's really that straightforward," said Wong, adding, "Digital drives results, but TV makes digital work harder." She also promised the announcement of an executive roundtable in the coming weeks to further discuss the study.

Keep up with all the renewals, cancellations and new series pickups with THR's handy scorecard and follow the pilot crop status here. For full Upfronts 2016 coverage, go to THR.com/upfronts.

 

 

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