As Paul Lee Era Ends at ABC, Channing Dungey Steps Into a No-Win Job

paul lee and channing dungey - H 2016
Jennifer Graylock/WireImage; Alexandra Wyman/WireImage

Successfully running a broadcast network in the Platinum Age of Television is a ridiculously impossible job. ABC will find the exclamation point of that statement now that its man on the hot seat, Paul Lee, has stepped down in a lost power struggle with his boss, Ben Sherwood, president of Disney/ABC TV Group.

Sherwood has installed Lee’s head of drama, Channing Dungey, into the smoldering seat of doom, becoming the first African-American woman to run a broadcast network.

Congratulations on getting one of the worst jobs in TV!

Dungey does have close ties to Shonda Rhimes, which helps everywhere in life, not just at ABC. And as head of drama development she can trace her fingerprints to RhimesHow to Get Away With Murder, the critically acclaimed American Crime and — if she’s like every other person who has ever become entertainment president at a broadcast network — pretty much every other hit at ABC even if she wasn’t born yet. It’s what you do when you ascend the throne.

And yet, Sherwood’s gamble that Lee — who had a rocky run but found stability and success by letting Shondaland expand and, most important, bringing diversity to ABC’s strong comedy stable in Blackish and Fresh Off the Boat (plus the failed Cristela) — had lost his way and needed to go, ignores the modern day fact that entertainment presidents don’t really control the destiny of the network anymore.

That’s because it’s almost impossible in this Peak TV environment where an excess of (often very good) scripted material from an excess of outlets has watered down the overall viewing numbers in a way that makes almost no financial sense for big-tent broadcast networks.

Beyond that, Dungey is inheriting an underperforming network that just entered midseason with dubious prospects and, if you want to get into the "this is what your life will be like now" portion of the job as it pertains to a persnickety press, has her fingerprints on some of that failure given her previous title.

Of Kings And Prophets (March 8) is a series some critics have been mocking on Twitter well ahead of its premiere, and the Rhimes-produced The Catch (March 24) has been plagued with behind-the-scenes issues and a clip shown at the winter Television Critics Association press tour looked particularly underwhelming.

Add to that a less than impressive Marvel contribution to the network — Agent Carter is limping to its likely end — the inability to make what should have been a slam dunk in The Muppets work and Dungey will no doubt be in "hold all calls" mode.

Luckily for her — and by extension Sherwood, who came over from the news division — the installation of a new entertainment president often brings a period of calling off the dogs and letting the poor newbie have a shot at turning things around. That free pass might be shorter for Dungey given that she was head of drama and in the mix already as opposed to coming to ABC from somewhere else. She’s also taking over with enough time to call the shots on what gets axed from this season and green-lit for upfronts in May, so instead of a year’s worth of free passes the dogs might be barking as early as summer TCA (and certainly if next fall’s shows implode).

Right now the failures that have come and gone — Blood & Oil, Wicked City — are going to fall on Lee’s plate along with whatever doesn’t work on the comedy side plus all the issues of an aging Castle, Nashville, Sunday holes, and Muppets kickback. The lack of sports and the whole "why isn’t Marvel working?" issues are so much more Sherwood’s worry than hers.

But unless Dungey can coax out a lot more Rhimes-styled shows — whose tone and sensibility combine with ABC’s comedies to create the network’s identifying brand — she’ll find out very quickly what Lee has known for a long time.

That this job is impossible.

The caveat here is that striking gold with an old-school network kind of ratings success like Empire on Fox is still rare but attainable, and live musicals are clearly a thing to invest in, copycat allegations be damned. Oh, and CBS. CBS is always the caveat to the theory that making hits on broadcast is a mug’s game. But let’s make this super clear: there is only one CBS and nobody else is going to duplicate whatever freakish shamanism is going on over there. Don’t even look at CBS because it’ll just make you sad.

Everyone else — Fox, NBC, the CW — there is struggle and despair on the books. To make ABC a ratings hit in the current playing field is, well, pretty much impossible. This is probably the truth that Lee couldn’t sell to Sherwood who, frankly, hasn’t been in his own job long enough to absorb that fact he’s riding a dinosaur. The only way to have the money invested in creating network television make any kind of sense to the ratings that they deliver is to first upend the entire system so that the cost of making shows and paying talent is more in line with what’s going on in cable because the majority of shows on broadcast networks are now regularly returning cable ratings — on a good day.

But no, that revolution is not likely to happen and neither Lee nor Dungey can be blamed for that, as I detailed at length in this January column at TCA.

And with that we’ve reached the "let’s remember Paul Lee" segment of management transition, and I just want to say this about the man: He’ll get an easier job soon enough.

I’ve known Lee since he ran BBC America as it launched in this country, and he was incredibly astute even then. He ran what was once ABC Family before it had a ridiculous name change and made that virtually useless cable channel relevant. Because of Lee's success at ABC Family he was promoted to ABC entertainment president in the summer of 2010, appearing in front of TV critics at TCA with less than 36 hours on the job.

In his ABC tenure I discovered something I hadn’t known about Lee — as a Brit he absolutely adored the broadest kinds of American television when he was growing up. You know, the kinds of laugh-track heavy inanity that television critics generally abhor. This was in stark contrast to all the smart BBC America stuff, of course, but was completely in the DNA of ABC Family as he connected with what young millennial viewers wanted and, naturally, what broadcast networks were all about back then (which, given the supersonic onset of Peak TV, does seem like another world away). Lee had plenty of misses at ABC (plenty of shows I loathed) and he was rumored to be toast a number of times. In fact, when Kevin Reilly was dumped at Fox I asked on Twitter who among us TV critics had Reilly going before Lee in the executive dead pool — something that Lee took in the spirit of his job’s built-in doom factor but which ABC publicity did not.

Despite our many differences in opinion about what Lee put on the air at ABC, he was never less than cordial and professional to me in person (certainly not true of all execs) and once, in a time of crisis in his job (because, as noted, it’s the least safe job in the business), he made his way past handlers to congratulate me on this piece, for being the only person who noticed he had cleverly set himself up as the first sitting entertainment president to "rebuild" his own failed network.

That took a sense of humor and also a keen understanding that these jobs don’t last forever. CBS is the only network that routinely passes the baton of success to someone else. Every other network has historically just fired its entertainment president and moved on (although the modern day approach is to take a slightly elevated title and slyly make someone else the entertainment president even when you control the decisions — see NBC, Fox).

On Wednesday, Lee was able to "step down" amid a power struggle. That’s clever, too. He’ll be back, though. Most former entertainment presidents stay in the business. I’d bet money that Lee will go to cable, however — because he knows as well as anyone that successfully running a broadcast network in its current form in a Peak TV world, is a more futile endeavor now than ever.