ABC's Channing Dungey Meets the Press: 'Star Wars' on TV, 'Bachelor' Diversity and Post-'Castle' Procedurals

The network's new entertainment president makes her first TCA appearance, offering a plan to make the dating franchise less white and emphasizing that talks with Lucasfilm are ongoing.
Courtesy of ABC/Image Group LA
Channing Dungey

Making her first appearance before the TV critics, ABC entertainment president Channing Dungey appeared at ease during her Thursday morning executive session at the Television Critics Association's summer press tour.

The half-hour Q&A, which never touched on anything particularly controversial for the fourth-place network, started with a 10-minute spiel from Dungey talking through her first schedule at the Disney-owned net. "We're very proud of our brand," she said, pointing to the sports-free network's shared status as the No. 1 net with entertainment programming. "We reflect all of America in our diversity, and we definitely want to keep moving in that direction."

Shrewdly following a panel for Kiefer Sutherland starrer Designated Survivor, one of the fall's buzzier new shows, Dungey also padded the presentation with the morning's news of a Kyra Sedgwick series order and renewals for the summer game-show block.

The rest of the discussion was very forward-looking, with Dungey emphasizing her interest in getting a piece of Disney's Star Wars pie, a slower road to diversity on the Bachelor franchise, a plan for more procedurals down the line and personal hopes to boost ratings for John Ridley's critically acclaimed American Crime anthology. She also, hopefully, put the great Castle debate of 2016 to rest for good.

Here are the key takeaways:

Diversity Will Come to The Bachelor ... Eventually
ABC executives have been taken to task for the overwhelmingly white contestants on popular reality shows The Bachelor and The Bachelorette. And as the first African-American woman to run a broadcast entertainment division, Channing may be the driving force behind finally diversifying the show. "I would very much like to see some changes,” she said. But the challenge is getting more diverse candidates on the show in the first place. That’s because for the last several seasons, the new Bachelor or Bachelorette has been a popular castmember from the previous cycle. "It’s worked very well for us because the audiences feel really engaged [in choosing] that candidate. What we’d like to do is broaden that,” she said. "We need to increase the pool of diverse candidates in the beginning. That is something we really want to put some effort and energy towards."

Of course ABC Wants Star Wars
Fielding a similar question as her predecessor Paul Lee when parent company Disney first acquired Star Wars house Lucasfilm, Dungey did not have an update on any potential Star Wars series coming to ABC. But she did have some optimism. "As a fan, I would absolutely love to say 'yes,'" she said, when asked if it's one of the goals of her tenure. "We have had conversations with Lucasfilm, and we continue to have them. I think it would be wonderful to extend that brand onto our programming." Dungey later clarified in a scrum of reporters that she was not sure if that potential Star Wars future would be animated or live-action. "We don't have a timeline yet," she said, stressing that talks are ongoing.

Prestige Shows Get More Patience
"The linear number, we did not hit our target," Dungey admitted of John Ridley anthology American Crime. The drama nabbed four key Emmy awards and a speedy renewal. It also only averaged a 1.6 rating among adults 18-49 and 6 million viewers with time-shifting. The exec emphasized that multiplatform views help the show, while making it clear that the acclaim has been enough to keep the show on the air. "We're very hopeful in looking at what [Ridley] has planned for season 3 that we'll be able to broaden our base a little bit ... it's all about the launch and the marketing and giving it a little more momentum coming into the season."

Looking to the Next Step in ABC's Comedy Brand
Dungey, who was promoted out of ABC’s drama development department, admitted that her biggest challenge in the job so far has been getting up to speed in the comedy genre, an area where ABC has arguably had much success from the enduring popularity of Modern Family to more recent hit Black-ish. And Dungey noted that Speechless — which stars Minnie Driver as a mom with a special-needs child — is the next iteration of ABC’s inclusive comedy brand. It’s been a couple of decades since Life Goes On went off the air, the last time ABC had a show with a prominent special-needs character. And Dungey admitted that it is “challenging” to find a show that does not feel too precious. Speechless, she said, "is about a family in which one of the members happens to have special needs. It still feels very accessible, very authentic and very relatable. It does not feel earnest at all."

Can We Stop Talking About Castle Now?
Dungey may not have appeared annoyed by lingering questions about the cancelation of aging procedural Castle (and, to a lesser degree, the CMT-salvaged Nashville). But some critics were. She emphasized that the axing of Stana Katic, for the ninth season that never came to be, was a studio call. "We were always very upfront with the studio and producers that we might not bring the show back for season nine," said Dungey. "They did what they felt they had to do in case they got the nod." And they did not.

Expect More Procedurals in 2017
Speaking of Castle ... ABC will have only one procedural drama on its schedule next season, the Haley Atwell starrer Conviction. It's a start for a network with a very overtly serialized drama brand. (Buzzed about new drama Designated Survivor is very much a serialized drama. Notorious does have closed-ended B storylines, but the main story arc is serialized.) So it will be interesting to see if Conviction succeeds on ABC and further opens the network up to the procedural genre. Dungey is clearly hoping it does. “We certainly want to do more. They repeat very well. We have 52 weeks a year to schedule," she said.

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