TV Networks, Studios Shifting Program Strategies in the Trump Age: "Are We Telling the Right Stories?"
"Everybody is taking a hard look," says one network chief as an ABC creator courts right-wing writers, a studio head rethinks his slate and blue-collar viewers suddenly become a hot demo.
In the days following Donald Trump's stunning presidential win, ABC Studios chief Patrick Moran called Black-ish creator Kenya Barris. The men had a project at ABC about a pair of politically divided pundits who fall in love. Suddenly it felt more relevant.
But now Moran wanted to be sure both sides of the spectrum were being presented with equal credibility. "In years past, it would be very easy to let one side feel like the cartoon and have the show assume that the audience is siding with the other," Moran says of the liberal slant that often permeates Hollywood output. Barris agreed and has begun courting right-wing voices for his writers room: "There was no way I wanted to do something that was going to further the divide in this country." On Dec. 6, the project was ordered to pilot.
That exchange came on the heels of what Moran describes as a "wake-up call." Over at ABC, entertainment chief Channing Dungey acknowledges that the rise of Trump and his blue-collar support forced her to question whether her programming was too focused on upper-income brackets. Similar check-ins have taken place across the TV industry as executives try to better understand and appeal to a demographic to which many hadn't paid enough attention. "[The election] made the ground shake underneath media," TLC president Nancy Daniels tells THR, "and now everybody is taking a hard look: Are we telling the right stories? Are we reaching the right people?"
Nobody interviewed by THR is suggesting the TV landscape will be turned over to a slew of Roseanne rip-offs; but many do expect the working class, middle-America ethos to be better represented, particularly at the broadcast networks where Trump's 60 million supporters are key to success. Changes likely will be gradual, since the bulk of 2017 development already had been started by Nov. 8.
For Dungey, it will be more about assessing the projects she has already bought through a different lens. "We've always been a network that has prided itself on keeping diversity and inclusion at the forefront of our conversations," she says. "But we've largely been defining that from a racial perspective, a religious perspective, an ethnic perspective, and looking at it from the point of view of issues of gender and sexuality and not as much through the prism of economics and of cities versus small towns." With the latter in mind, a Reba McEntire drama set in the South that Dungey snatched up pre-election now may have more resonance — just as a Tennessee-set half-hour starring a comedian called the "liberal redneck" could suddenly feel timely at Fox.
Moran suggests the shift at ABC Studios likely will be more tonal than conceptual, with an increased focus on projects rooted in "hope, optimism and escapism" rather than the edgy, cable-like fare he and others have chased in years past. NBC president Jennifer Salke says she, too, has given a lot of thought to the mood of the country postelection and will embrace more feel-good comedies and broad, family-friendly fare a la 2016 breakout This Is Us. And 20th Century Fox TV's Jonnie Davis insists his studio will continue to tell stories about other swaths of America, as it has with NBC's This Is Us and ABC's Speechless.
But not everyone is as eager to rethink strategy in the Trump Age. "I've never had success trying to retrofit development to service some sentiment going on in the country, my community or the companies we work in," explains Fox TV Group chairman Dana Walden. And others, led by uber-producer Ryan Murphy, believe it's more important than ever to use the TV medium to promote progressive values. "I'm doing Feud [starring Susan Sarandon and Jessica Lange for FX] not just because of the larger-than-life characters but because it directly confronts ageism, sexism, female pay scale inadequacies, the glass ceiling," he said Dec. 7 at THR's Women in Entertainment event. "It's a show that asks for and demands rebellion." His views highlight a possible challenge in appealing to the Trump demo; many of TV's top creators, including Murphy, Greg Berlanti and Lee Daniels, are vocal that their worldviews are in direct opposition to Trump's message.
And then there's a third subset, which includes execs at CBS and TLC, who believe they're already appealing to a non-metropolitan demo with such series as NCIS or Tyler Perry fare. A+E Networks CEO Nancy Dubuc suggests the success of Pawn Stars, American Pickers and Duck Dynasty on her networks was an early indicator of how the country was feeling. "People in the entertainment community have put their noses up at the kind of programming that we do," she says. "Maybe they would be better served by paying a little more attention to actually watching and understanding the stories that we're telling."
Michael O'Connell contributed to this report.
This story first appeared in the Jan. 6 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.