WBTV Boss Channing Dungey on Navigating Regime Change, Inflated Budgets and Future of ‘Ted Lasso’
In the latest ‘Table for Two,’ Channing Dungey reveals what keeps her up at night and how she leads in disruptive times: “It’s your job to hold the umbrella over the team so they can keep focusing on the work."
Channing Dungey spent her first two months at what was then simply Warner Media shadowing her predecessor, Peter Roth. She was coming off a short stint at Netflix, which followed a much longer stint at Disney, and Roth had two-plus decades of experience running television’s most prolific studio to impart.
“I like to say I was auditing Professor Roth’s course,” she says over a late lunch in January at Superba Hollywood, recounting how she’d follow him from Zoom room to Zoom room, taking it all in, as 2020 drew to a close.
A few things became very clear, very quickly. The first was that trying to do the job in the style that Roth did it was a fool’s errand. Though the two share a passion for storytelling, his translated to larger-than-life pitches — even virtually, she says, “It’s like the Ringling Bros. circus” — and a penchant for bear hugs. Neither would be easy nor natural to replicate; in fact, in those early days, Dungey would often joke, “I’m lucky it’s COVID, I have time to warm up my hug game.” The second was that Roth presided over a volume business that was largely predicated on broadcast, which was meaningful during his tenure but increasingly antiquated during hers.
“I’ve definitely been part of long-running things — Criminal Minds, Grey’s Anatomy — but it’s not going to happen, in this job, that I’m going to get any show to 300 episodes. That’s just not the world we live in anymore,” says Dungey as her chicken and arugula salad arrives. “And so, in my more self-conscious moments, I think, ‘I’m never going to live up to that.’ But then you stand up straight and you say, ‘I’m going to do my thing, my way.’ ” Of course, Dungey’s way has been complicated by a fast-changing market, a major leadership change and a complete strategy overhaul.
When Dungey formally took over in January 2021 during what she calls “the [Jason] Kilar era,” the company’s focus was almost exclusively on HBO Max. “It was HBO Max or bust,” she says, “and it’s not for me to opine about whether that was a good or a bad strategy — it was a very clear strategy.” A studio that was once famously independent was now tethered to its nascent streamer, and, by and large, if a project didn’t sell there, it was dead. The fact that smash hit Ted Lasso, which predated Dungey at the studio, aired on Apple TV+ incensed Kilar. “There was endlessly ongoing conversation about, like, ‘Why doesn’t HBO Max have that?’ And it’s like, ‘Well, first of all, because there was no HBO Max when the project was pitched,’ ” she says. “But yeah, it became ‘HBO Max and crush everybody else.’ ”
Then, some 16 months into Dungey’s tenure, Warner Bros. was absorbed by Discovery. Kilar was out, and Dungey became one of CEO David Zaslav’s 18 direct reports at what was now Warner Bros. Discovery. The transition was harder than she’d anticipated. Suddenly saddled with more than $50 billion in debt, to say nothing of broader economic headwinds and a chilly ad market, Zaslav arrived in Hollywood eager to cut $3 billion. Layoffs followed, along with a slashing of budgets. Then came the real gut punch: Projects that had been renewed were scrapped, and others were simply excised from the streamer. Morale was in the bowels of the basement. “And as a leader,” Dungey says, “it’s your job to hold the umbrella over the team so they can keep focusing on the work, and sometimes it can be a little tiring holding that umbrella.”
In recent months, Dungey has spent a lot of time apologizing for decisions that were made above her. The good news, she tells me, is that she genuinely believes the contraction happening now, which is hardly unique to WBD, will lead to a healthier business, long term. “There was a point there where it felt like if you didn’t spend $10 million to $12 million on a show, then you weren’t doing your job. And it’s like, what?! Sure, the audience can probably tell the difference between $5 million and $7 million or $8 million because the locations are fancier, the wardrobe and music are better and you’re outside more than you’re inside, but beyond that? It’s not serving the audience,” she says. “And while I don’t know that budgets have quite come down to the level that they probably could or should, I do know that our various platform partners who were once like, ‘Whatever!’ are now saying, ‘Wait, how much is that?’ And honestly, I appreciate that because it’s actually encouraging us to make choices that are smarter and more sustainable for the business as a whole.”
To the inevitable relief of her roster, which includes Quinta Brunson, Mindy Kaling and Bill Lawrence, Dungey doesn’t believe that the reversing of renewals will continue as a trend. “I think that was very much a function of 2022 — the effect of people buying too much, too fast, and then realizing, ‘OK, let’s slow our roll,’ ” she says. As for the excised fare, she likes to remind people that Warner Bros. has a long history of finding new homes for shows, from You to Manifest, and she’s committed to doing so again. The mandate is no longer HBO Max or bust. In fact, Zaslav sees outside sales as a major revenue opportunity, and he’s very happy to have hits elsewhere, from The Sandman (at Netflix) to Abbott Elementary (ABC) — even Lasso, which will return to Apple TV+ for its third season this spring. Asked whether this season would be the show’s last, as its creators envisioned, Dungey suggests it’s unclear.
“I will say that season three ends in a way that feels very satisfying,” she offers. “So, if that ends up being the end, the audience will feel satisfied. But is there a door that’s potentially open if we could do more? Yes.” (For the record, she’d also like a Roy Kent spinoff someday, and she’s pretty sure star Brett Goldstein would be game for one, too.)
As we work our way through lunch, with only a few, brief interruptions from ring-kissing patrons, Dungey tells me she’s feeling more positive than she has in months. “So far, 2023 has felt like the turning of a page,” she says, at least at WBD. The week before, she’d spent a couple of days at the company’s leadership retreat, and she walked away feeling, for the first time, like everyone was on the same page. The speakers had ranged from NBA commissioner Adam Silver to former studio heads Alan Horn and Sherry Lansing. “People who’ve been through a lot and seen a lot,” says Dungey. “And so it was great to hear their observations and perspectives, having been in the trenches, and you can’t help but leave feeling inspired.” Plus, at one point, Lansing had said, before an audience of nearly 200 executives, that she not only knew exactly who Dungey was but also she’d been following her career. “My inner fan-girl went bananas,” says Dungey.
To be sure, the married mother of two has grown more comfortable with people knowing who she is. Her first real taste came in early 2016, when she was elevated to president of entertainment at ABC, making history as the first Black head of a major broadcast network. Dungey knew it was a big deal, and, as such, assumed it would get some nice pickup in the trades. Instead, she woke to find her news was everywhere.
“I remember my friend was living in Paris and it was in the news there, and that’s when you start to realize that it’s impactful in a different way,” she says, accepting that, in certain circles, she’s become a minor celebrity. Strangers, many of them Black women, will come up to her and, like Lansing, tell her that they’ve been following her career. “I didn’t intend for any of that — my sister [Merrin Dungey] is the actress, I read scripts for a living — but if I’m a source of inspiration for other people, or girls my daughter’s age, that’s meaningful.” Dungey has used her platform thoughtfully, notably never sugarcoating the realities of being a C-suite mom.
As it turns out, Dungey didn’t stay very long in that broadcast role. In fact, over the next few years, she became something of a job-hopper. After less than three years leading ABC, she stepped down in late 2018, joining Netflix a month later. Less than two years into that gig, she jumped again, this time to her role at Warner Bros. In both instances, her departure came amid leadership changes; at Netflix, there was also a mandate change, and, as she notes, “even then, there was a little bit of a sense that the cowboy days were already behind them.” Plus, as she saw it, the studio opportunity was one she’d been building to, even if her 10-year-old daughter would have preferred she stay longer at more YA-friendly Netflix. (Dungey was initially thrilled to have a WBD show, Abbott, to watch together, but now she says her daughter is refusing to watch season two until it’s all available to binge. They’re working their way through Gilmore Girls instead.)
Two years in, Dungey’s favorite part of the job is the creative piece, which amounts to about 25 percent of the gig. “I miss the days when it was 95 percent,” she says, but with some 430 employees, there’s a lot of personnel to manage. And that doesn’t account for her sprawling roster of overall deals, a market she says is still “a tad overheated,” though she jokes that this is less about talent expectations than it is about those of agents. To her delight, Zaslav has made himself very available to help secure and retain those top producers, as he did with Greg Berlanti, who recently re-upped his megadeal at the studio.
“What I love about David is that he’s very invested, but he’s not in the weeds. He’s never once given me notes on a cut,” claims Dungey, who says her one-on-ones with Zaslav often begin with him asking her what’s keeping her up at night and how can he help. Her responses tend to vary, though more often than not, they involve the ever-changing marketplace. “Like, with broadcast, we’re still selling, they’re still buying, but it’s getting smaller and smaller. And right now, the streamers are still buying, but how long will some of them be around? I don’t know that there’s room for nine of them. And then everybody’s jumping onto the FAST channel thing, and what does that really mean? Are those going to be places where you can actually sell stuff or just a place to put content they already had? So, the exciting thing about the time that we’re in is that you don’t know what’s going to happen tomorrow,” she says. “And the thing that keeps you up at night is that you don’t know what’s going to happen tomorrow.”
This story first appeared in the Jan. 27 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. Click here to subscribe.