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The news comes a year after Ben Sherwood, with whom Lee is said to have clashed, took over as president of Disney/ABC TV Group. Dungey, an ABC veteran known by many as the Shonda Rhimes whisperer, becomes the first female African-American to run a broadcast network. In her new role, effective immediately, she will report to Sherwood.
The shakeup comes nearly six years into Lee’s tenure at the Disney-owned network. Ironically, he’d spent his early years in the job flogged by rumors that his days were numbered, the result of low ratings and rumblings of corporate frustrations. Then came the 2014-15 season, in which his big bet on diversity yielded strong ratings and critical accolades for a slate that included such shows as How to Get Away With Murder and Black-ish. When Sherwood assumed his position, Lee was riding particularly high in the job, which helped to quell rumors that the new boss would want to select his own chief.
But despite a handful of original stalwarts, namely Rhimes‘ Thursday block of Grey’s Anatomy, Scandal and Murder, ratings at the network have since languished. Take ABC’s biggest bet this past fall, The Muppets, which has proved a critical and commercial disappointment, with ratings falling to a record low 0.8 last night. Worse, at the turn of the year, the network fell behind Fox to last place among the Big Four networks. Among that Big Four, it’s also down the most year-to-year, shedding 14 percent among adults 18-49 to an average 1.8 rating. It’s down 12 percent among total viewers, with its average primetime audience down to just 7.2 million viewers.
In fact, just one night prior to the news of Lee’s exit, ABC ranked last on the broadcast networks — trailing even The CW and Fox with an anemic 0.8 rating in the key demo. To be sure, an almost complete lack of sports has always been a hindrance to ABC, a point Lee and his publicity team have hammered for years. It’s the only Big Four network out of the NFL discussion, with Disney cable sibling ESPN taking Monday Night Football back in 2005.
ABC’s year will likely see little salvation this midseason. Drama Agent Carter, the latest in a line of ratings disappointments from the Disney-owned comics powerhouse Marvel, failed to move the dial in its second season — nor did the network’s ambitious Madoff miniseries, which skewed especially old. Among the new series on tap, the Rhimes-produced The Catch (March 24) has been riddled with behind-the-scenes problems, as has the period drama Of Kings and Prophets (March 8). Both shows saw premieres delayed amid showrunner changes and other retooling.
Lee, a British executive who found success at ABC Family before moving to ABC following Steve McPherson’s ousting, has remained guarded during his network tenure. He rarely doles out interviews to the press, and many sellers have long complained that they have found themselves hamstrung because they don’t have a good handle on his tastes. His exit comes half a year after a change was announced at rival CBS, where Glenn Geller was named as Nina Tassler’s replacement.
For her part, Dungey has long been seen internally as an executive on the rise. The UCLA grad joined the network in 2009, and before that worked for sibling ABC Studios. Though her credits include a range of shows including critically beloved American Crime and one-time ratings heavyweight Once Upon a Time, her biggest success has been her fruitful relationship with Rhimes. Dungey began her career as a development assistant at 20th Century Fox-based Davis Entertainment, and did stints at other companies including Steamroller Productions and Warner Bros.
That she is already intimately involved in the network’s development and well-known to the network producers should put many in the community at ease. Patrick Moran will continue to oversee ABC Studios and will now report directly to Sherwood.
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