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The former Freeform head of originals was grilled over former The Rookie star Afton Williamson’s extensive allegations of sexual harassment and racial discrimination, as well as Constance Wu’s disappointment with ABC’s decision to renew her comedy Fresh Off the Boat and Burke’s somewhat surprising decision to cancel the family comedy The Kids Are Alright. And Burke, who came prepared with a narrative about the strength of broadcast television and ABC in particular, did not have answers for many of the topics she was met with from the press corps.
“I don’t have a lot of answers. I wish I had more,” the exec said when asked to address Williamson’s claims. “I learned alongside my colleagues at the end of June that there were allegations and an investigation had been launched by Entertainment One. I’m waiting for results of that investigation to get more answers.”
On Sunday, Williamson wrote in a lengthy post on her verified Instagram account that she quit her co-starring role on ABC’s Nathan Fillion-led cop drama amid claims of sexual harassment and racial discrimination. The actress alleged she experienced racial discrimination and racially charged inappropriate comments from the hair department as well as from executive producers starting with the pilot and continuing through the show’s first season. Williamson also said she reported the experience to showrunner Alexi Hawley and claims he never passed it along to HR. The actress said the issues escalated into sexual assault during The Rookie‘s wrap party. Entertainment One — the lead studio on The Rookie — is leading the ongoing investigation into Williamson’s claims. ABC said Sunday in a statement that eOne informed the network of the investigation in late June. (ABC Studios is also a co-producer on the series.)
Burke replaced Channing Dungey as ABC Entertainment president in November. She was reminded Monday that her predecessor canceled Roseanne — then TV’s No. 1 comedy — after former star Roseanne Barr’s racist remarks. Burke was asked the lengths to which she would go if Williamson’s claims are found to be true by the independent investigator. “I wish I had more answers,” she said. “I’m frustrated. I can tell you that as soon as we learn more, we will make a determination based on what is found. … I’m hopeful those [investigation] results will be independent and trustworthy,” the exec said of the probe being conducted by an independent company hired by eOne. “Those conclusions will help guide us how to handle situations like that in the future, if in fact there has been any sort of communication breakdown. I don’t have any more answers than that right now,” Burke added, stressing that ABC has its own HR partner that is available to anyone on The Rookie who does not feel comfortable.
As for Wu — who expressed remorse for her frustration with Fresh Off the Boat’s renewal (which she noted prevented the Crazy Rich Asians star from doing a feature) — Burke said she has not spoken with the actress but everything surrounding the ABC comedy is on track ahead of the show’s first table read of season six.
“I was happy she apologized. I’ve had no further conversation [with her],” Burke noted. “We have ongoing conversations with the producers of Fresh Off the Boat and it was made clear to us very early on that everyone took Constance at her word and that she was apologetic for what she said.”
Here are other takeaways from Burke’s 30 minute before the press:
• Bachelor creator Mike Fleiss will continue to be involved with the franchise. Fleiss and his wife have settled their dispute after she accused him of attacking her while she was pregnant. Burke noted that the Bachelor franchise — part of ABC’s dominant summer performance — will remain status quo. “The charges have been dropped and I’ve been told the situation was resolved amicably with the parties. Given that, it does not affect production on Bachelor or Bachelorette in any way,” she said. As for the franchise’s lack of a black lead in its 23 seasons, Burke stressed ongoing efforts to increase diversity. “Conversations are ongoing about who the next Bachelor will be. I do think that the show has worked hard to increase diversity in its casting and is continuing to evolve,” said the exec. “As that evolves, you will continue to see more diversity from the franchise moving forward.
• The Kids Are Alright was canceled because of its lackluster ratings.“It was a good show; I liked the show. It was not that it didn’t fit my personal vision for the network; it was that we really looked at it every which way from a ratings perspective and we just did not see enough upside,” Burke said of the 1970s-set family comedy starring Michael Cudlitz and Mary McCormack. “We looked at many measures — multiplatform, social media sentiment — and there didn’t seem to be a strong enough fan base at the time. These things always come down to business decisions, and this was a tough business decision.”
• ABC’s TGIT-branded Thursday block will remain in place — for now. DJ Nash’s sophomore tear-jerker A Million Little Things will join the Thursday lineup full-time during the 2019-2020 broadcast season, breaking up the Shonda Rhimes programming block that will end once the final season of How to Get Away With Murder wraps. Burke said the branded block will remain “for the time being.” She also expressed optimism that Grey’s Anatomy showrunner Krista Vernoff can infuse new life into the spinoff Station 19 and hoped both shows would be part of ABC’s Thursday lineup for a long time. “Thursday night has been and will continue to be one of our strongest nights and a home for high-quality character driven drama, whether it’s from Shonda or DJ Nash,” Burke said, noting Grey’s will celebrate its 350th episode in November. “Grey’s and Station 19 will be building blocks.”
• Grand Hotel is still on — for now. The rookie summer scripted soap will get a big new lead-in starting Monday with Bachelor in Paradise. Burke hoped the stalwart unscripted series would help boost lackluster ratings for the Eva Longoria-produced series. “We’ll wait until end of its run [to make a renewal or cancellation decision] and see how it does behind Bachelor in Paradise. It’s a show we like a lot. I wish the ratings were a bit stronger,” she conceded.
• About those dueling Little Mermaid projects… Burke on Monday announced a November airdate for a live concert mixed with animation from the Disney classic and noted she was “not worried about one overshadowing the other.” ABC’s event was produced specifically for television, while the feature is earmarked for 2020. “They’re quite distinctively different,” she said.
• Ryan Seacrest’s deal for American Idol isn’t done yet. Burke said Idol was in “ongoing conversations with Ryan about returning” and stressed she’s “hopeful” he will return for the third season on ABC, where he would join all three judges, who closed their deals Monday.
• The pitch for broadcast. Burke opened her time Monday at TCA by stressing the power of broadcast. She claimed ABC is the No. 1 broadcaster since January — though it was unclear in which metric she was referring. Still, she said the combined Disney Television Studios — featuring Fox’s newly acquired TV studio — was a “game changer” for the network. “Because the broadcast network they’re most focused on now is ABC,” she noted, before conceding that the network does have “miles to go” in its rebuilding efforts. She pointed out that 44 of the top 50 shows last season among adults 18-49 were all on broadcast before taking a swipe at streamers. “Most shows on competing platforms, some get a billboard on Sunset [Boulevard] and some disappear into the sunset,” said the exec.
• ABC is returning to the event space. Burke stressed a return for the network into big tentpole limited series and greenlit a pair from the stage, one focused on 9/11 and the other an anthology focusing on women of the civil rights movement.
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