Channing Dungey's ABC Legacy: 'Good' Success and the 'Roseanne' Debacle

The first black broadcast network chief, who stepped down Friday, launched one of the biggest shows in years … and quickly canceled it when the star proved too incendiary.
Emma McIntyre/Getty Images for Women In Film
Channing Dungey

On Friday, Nov. 16, Channing Dungey became the latest broadcast entertainment chief to show herself the door.

Dungey did so after nearly three years in the job — and, notably, before the ABC environment as she knew it was poised to change amid a merger with the major assets of 21st Century Fox. In a matter of months, Dungey would have been reporting to outgoing Fox TV Group head Dana Walden.

According to multiple sources close to Dungey, she is said to have been weighing whether to stay or go ahead of her contract’s early 2019 expiration, and ultimately chose the latter. Those same sources say there were efforts made by her current and future bosses to keep her. They also suggest she’ll be taking time to figure out what’s next.

To be sure, Dungey is not the only one who opted to exit ABC ahead of the Disney-Fox merger. In fact, two other top executives — also black and female — have departed in recent months as well. In August, Nne Ebong announced she would be leaving ABC Studios as its drama head. Then in October, Jamila Hunter revealed she’d be departing as head of the network comedy division to join Kenya Barris at his Netflix-based production company. And now it’s Dungey, whose decision caught many by surprise.

Though her tenure as chief was hardly long, it was peppered with big swings, at least a few of which became successes. Though her former boss Ben Sherwood deserves credit, too, the bold and pricey decision to take on American Idol proved relatively shrewd, as the music competition that had previously run on Fox performed for ABC. Dungey also gets points for identifying and nurturing a bona fide drama hit in David Shore’s The Good Doctor, which in the midst of its second season is netting an impressive 2.6 rating in broadcast's target 18-49 demographic and 13.3 million viewers once a week of time-shifting is factored in.

At the same time, Dungey’s run was rocked by plenty of drama, beginning with the high-profile departures of two of ABC’s biggest brand-name showrunners, Shonda Rhimes and Kenya Barris, who moved from ABC Studios to Netflix. In neither case was Dungey name-checked as a reason for their exit — in fact, both still actively praise her and her talents, and at least one has tried to recruit her in the months since. Nonetheless, the moves occurred on her watch.

Of course, Dungey, the first black woman in history to run a broadcast network, will probably be best remembered for her role in the Roseanne fiasco. She ordered the revival, which enjoyed a record-shattering first season, lifting ad rates and ratings for ABC at large in spring 2018. Then came Barr’s controversial June tweet, after which Dungey took immediate action and canceled the No. 1 series on TV. At the time, sources suggested that she was most vocal and adamant about the decision internally. Externally, she became the public face of Barr’s axing, earning headlines and accolades beyond Hollywood’s reach.

Her decision to move forward with a Barr-less spinoff, The Conners, has not yielded the same ratings results. The series is pulling a comparatively modest 2.9 rating in the key demo — though that's only modest when you stack it up against Roseanne's boffo revival, which pulled nearly double the viewership with a 5.5 rating.

The latest shake-up comes as Walden, who exited her gig atop Fox broadcasting exactly one week earlier, prepares to take the helm at ABC. And it’s hardly ideal. Despite some misfires (remember Marvel's Inhumans?), Dungey was trusted and well-liked by both her ABC team and the larger community, and having her in that chief seat during a complicated transition would have proved valuable to Walden and an already anxious staff. Walden and new Disney/ABC TV Group boss Peter Rice are said to have been involved in the choice of Freeform’s Karey Burke as Dungey’s replacement.

Burke inherits a broadcast network that is once again ranked last in the Big Four. Though ABC's ranking typically perks up in the second half of the traditional TV calendar, Dungey's fall ratings were pacing 19 percent below the 2017-18 season last November, and the audience is down by 12 percent. Yes, that's the overall broadcast trend — save Fox, lifted by its increasing lean on sports and the 2018 acquisition of Thursday Night Football — but it still stings. For the 2017-18 season, ABC wrapped the year in a three-way tie for second place, with ABC, CBS and Fox all distantly trailing a dominant NBC.

This last schedule of Channing's making, however, did include its share of freshman breakouts. Neither dramas A Million Little Things nor The Rookie are pulling Good Doctor numbers, but they've helped shore up several slots in the increasingly tricky schedule. Dungey's ABC tenure will most likely be remembered for the meteoric success and near-immediate implosion of Roseanne, but her knack for positioning multiple new dramas for long-running success will serve her well as she plots her next move.