ABC Boss Talks Disney-Fox Deal, Shonda Rhimes' Netflix Pact

Channing Dungey  - TCA SUMMER PRESS TOUR 2017 - Publicity-H 2017
ABC/Image Group LA

Before ABC entertainment chief Channing Dungey took the Television Critics Association's winter press tour stage on Monday morning, her network's public relations department handed out shot glasses with the phrase “Business as usual” emblazoned on one side.

Those three words had been uttered a handful of times the week prior, when Fox TV Group chiefs Dana Walden and Gary Newman sat on the same stage and were deluged with questions about the recently announced deal for Disney to acquire the bulk of Fox’s entertainment assets. Walden and Newman's network, too, seemed to have fun with what otherwise would have been the elephant in the room, with Newman taking the stage first with a Photoshopped image of him and Walden flanking Mickey Mouse as his backdrop. They spent the remainder of their time before the press corps talking about and around the subject.

The trouble with ABC's drinking game gag was that Dungey seemed not to be in on the joke. During her 20 minutes or so at the gathering, she was asked just one question about the $52.4 billion deal, and her response made no reference to the shot glasses that lined the room. Rather than incorporate the phrase “Business as usual” for comedic effect, the exec simply said that “at the moment, my focus is on everything that lies directly in front of me.” In her case, she said, that was ABC’s midseason shows and the upcoming pilot season. Dungey shut down any follow-ups by stating clearly that she and the company had said all that it would until a regulatory process in complete.

Fortunately, the ABC chief had more to offer when it came to her network’s programming, speaking at length about the demise of fall comedy The Mayor. She called the decision to pull the plug on the half-hour a “heartbreak,” acknowledging that it had been a top priority for ABC and that it had not skimped on its marketing spend. “For whatever reason, it did not connect with the audience in the way we thought it would,” said Dungey, adding: “The issue didn’t seem to be one of the audience not knowing … people knew and just didn’t come.” At one point, she suggested the title of the series may have part of the problem, noting that it came on at a time when there was a fair amount of political fatigue.

Staying on the subject of titles, Dungey revealed that the network’s forthcoming Grey’s Anatomy spinoff is still at least a few weeks away from securing a title of its own. To assuage any concerns, she reminded the room that Grey’s didn’t have a title until right before the series went on the air in March 2005, and that this time around, the spinoff has the benefit of the flagship branding as its own March premiere date approaches. “Coming up with a title," Dungey suggested, "is one of the most challenging things that we do.” 

The conversation about the Grey’s spinoff led naturally to a line of questioning about its creator, Shonda Rhimes, who, after years as the unofficial face of ABC, signed a mega-deal at rival Netflix. Dungey, who has shared a long history with Rhimes, was prepared for the queries. “I’ve known for a while that Shonda was interested in stretching a different set of creative muscles,” the exec said after asserting that her relationship with Rhimes is “as strong as it’s ever been” and that she was “really excited about the three shows we have on the air and the two we’re about to launch.” (She was less clear on whether the Netflix pact would preclude future Grey’s spinoffs.)

The remainder of Dungey’s time onstage was focused on her programming strategy going forward, with the ABC head of two years saying that she’d remain committed to family comedies and dramas that were lighter, brighter and more optimistic in tone, as breakout The Good Doctor has been. Post-panel, Dungey spoke to a smaller group about the future of Marvel on ABC, revealing that the network would be meeting with the comic book powerhouse about another potential season of Agents of SHIELD. She also admitted that the numbers for Imax-produced Inhumans were not what she had hoped for and reiterated that there would be Marvel originals on Disney's upcoming direct-to-consumer platform.