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Nearly two months after the stunning decision to cancel Roseanne and move forward with spinoff The Conners, ABC Entertainment president Channing Dungey has no regrets about axing TV’s No. 1 comedy in the wake of star Roseanne Barr’s racist tweet.
In her first interview since making headlines across the country for the shocking cancellation, Dungey talks with The Hollywood Reporter about the Roseanne experience; whether the pulled Black-ish episode was the final straw for Kenya Barris’ departure from her sibling studio; what to expect from Disney’s forthcoming direct-to-consumer service; and wanting more Modern Family as Disney is on the verge of acquiring Fox assets including its TV studio.
How difficult was the decision to pull the plug on TV’s No. 1 comedy?
It wasn’t that difficult. It felt like a line had been crossed and we needed to stand by our values as a company.
Looking back, is there anything you would have done differently?
No, I don’t think so. I think the swift, decisive action really spoke volumes and I think we’re proud of what we did. I am excited about the fact that we were able to bring the cast back and a majority of the crew back to work on The Conners — that’s important to me. That was my one disappointment that day — thinking about the innocent people who were affected by the decision. The fact that we’re now able to move forward with The Conners feels good.
What kind of response did you get from the creative community that day?
There was a lot of positive response, particularly from communities in this town that have felt marginalized at times or that things happened that are overlooked or brushed over. There was a lot of nice feedback about that. The feedback particularly was about a company, ABC, the Walt Disney Co., taking action that was so swift and decisive, even in the face of potential financial losses. That was very meaningful.
Would you have canceled Roseanne if you were working for a company that wasn’t Disney?
For me in my job, I focus on ABC Entertainment and what our values are. And they happen to be in line with what the Walt Disney Co. believes in. I do feel like, at our company, those ethics come down from the top — from Bob Iger. He has been very outspoken about diversity and inclusion and equality. I can’t really speak to what it would be like at another company, I’ve been here for 14 years and it’s very much in my blood.
Tim Allen was at TCA last week and discussed how challenging it is to be a comedian right now given how unclear where the line between what’s acceptable and what isn’t is in this hyper-sensitive era. Now that you’re going to own his show, where is that line?
It’s hard to know, and I feel like it’s ever in flux. It’s a very challenging time to be a comedian, in particular, because comedians are supposed to poke fun at things — particularly topical things — but people’s tensions are at an all-time high. It’s challenging.
Are the standards for what’s acceptable, both with what you can do on screen and off?
What’s happened with #MeToo and Time’s Up is that it’s brought a lot of issues that have been hiding just under the surface to light. It’s encouraging people to engage in conversations, and I think for a long time there was lip service to the idea of equality in the workplace and help from human resources. Now, people feel empowered to speak up when there are things that are troubling them. People are going to be hopefully better about taking decisive action when it needs to be taken.
Was Roseanne Barr’s tweet the final straw or was it the first offense?
[The press] knows because you were asking me the last time [I was at TCA and had an] executive session about Roseanne’s Twitter. It’s not a secret that she has had a tendency in the past to be sort of outspoken and go off-book. We’ve had multiple conversations about wanting to keep the focus on the show and not to let some of the other stuff eclipse the show. So, in some ways, this was a last straw. But it was also such an egregious tweet that it felt like no matter what, there would have been some action that we would have taken.
Were there warnings beforehand?
We’d had lots of conversations about wanting to keep the focus on the show.
Before the premiere, old photos surfaced with Barr dressed as Hitler and holding a tray of intentionally burned cookies. And no action was taken.
Those photos were from a long time before our show. She has had a slightly vitriolic history when she was on the show the first time around. One of the things she came to us to say was, “I regret my past actions and I feel like I have important stories to tell. I am looking for a second chance.” And I’m a believer in second chances.
Yet we’re in an era now where people’s past has now come back to haunt them — i.e. James Gunn and his years-old tweets that led to his firing on Guardians of the Galaxy 3.
I can’t comment on that because that’s the studio, and I don’t know all the ins and outs of that situation.
I’m not asking for comment on Gunn, but rather the era we’re in where actions from the past impact the present and they’re being held accountable.
Every situation is unique.
Have you heard from Barr since?
If she’s reading this, do you have a message for her?
How did you feel becoming part of the story? Your name was on every newscast and in every newspaper…
It’s a little overwhelming. But in the course of business, this is a public-facing job. So it happens.
How quickly did The Conners come together? Did Roseanne have to get canceled to pave the way for the spinoff because of the way the original deal with Barr was structured?
If we still had Roseanne, we wouldn’t have needed The Conners because we’re still telling the story of the Conner family in Lanford, Illinois.
Yes, but if you had fired Barr, she still would have profited from the show because it was based on her life. So did you have to cancel the show in order to do something without her?
I guess. We never would have thought of doing The Conners without canceling the original show. I never engaged in a what-if scenario otherwise.
How will her absence be addressed on The Conners? The logline infers that her character could be killed off.
That’s the thing I can’t talk about because the showrunners [Bruce Helford, Tom Werner and Sara Gilbert] for Conners have now taken a page out of the Marvel and Shondaland playbook and they’re keeping everything very close to the vest.
Has anyone onscreen said that they don’t want to come back?
How different will The Conners be? Roseanne was a show targeting the working class and Roseanne Barr.
None of that has changed. This is still the same family. It’s still the Conner family. It’s still Dan dealing with what he’s dealing with, Darlene dealing with what she’s dealing with. All those issues that were set up so well in the first nine episodes will continue.
Is the goal still to have The Conners cater to middle America?
Yes, we really wanted to focus on a specific, particularly economic slice of our country, which we think we did very well in the first season and will continue to do.
How will you do that considering you’ve now lost the poster child for middle America in Barr?
I don’t think that’s true. John Goodman is a legend in our time as an actor, and what Dan Conner represents is exactly the same.
Right, but offscreen Goodman isn’t a conservative Republican who supports Donald Trump.
The show is not about politics. People keep wanting to make it about red vs. blue [states] and we dealt with that very effectively in the first episode with Roseanne and Jackie’s different political views. The subsequent episodes are very much not about that. It’s a family comedy.
Has the value of this IP diminished without Barr?
That remains to be seen, but we’re very proud of the creative and feel good about.
What sort of ratings expectations do you have for The Conners?
We have some, but I don’t ever really talk about ratings in the press.
Shifting gears, ABC’s top comedy producer — Kenya Barris — has left the studio and is rumored to be headed to Netflix with a nine-figure deal. What sort of conversations did you have with him, in terms of trying to keep him in the Disney fold?
Kenya and I have had and continue to have a very close working relationship. He’s still very involved in this upcoming season of Black-ish and, as far as Disney is concerned, he has Grown-ish and a new series, Besties, at Freeform. That continues. Things are cyclical, and Kenya is at a point in his career where he wants to explore some different things narratively that he didn’t feel he could do in broadcast.
Was the pulled Black-ish episode the sticking point for him?
No. There were certainly frustrations there on all sides and we came to a mutual decision not to air the episode. But it’s also broadcast has its challenges. People struggle with act breaks, with Standards and Practices, with the needs and the points of view of our affiliates. Sometimes it’s easier to tell certain stories in the streaming space.
You’ve lost Barris and Shonda Rhimes. But at the same time, you’re getting an influx of producers, programming and IP with the Fox deal. Who are you most excited to work with?
I haven’t spent a lot of time looking through to cherry-pick. We have a great relationship with 20th TV already and I have loved and continue to love working with Nahnatchka Khan [showrunner on ABC’s Fresh Off the Boat]. We have Single Parents that we’re doing, and just saw Liz Meriwether closed a new deal with 20th, that’s exciting to see. They have an amazing roster, as does ABC Studios. If this all comes together, it will be an exciting time.
What sort of conversations have you had with Disney leadership about what your role is in this merged company? Are you expecting to remain in the same role?
I have not had any. At the moment, I am [expecting to have the same role]. It’s business as usual for me.
Disney is prepping its direct-to-consumer service. What sort of conversations have you had about what kind of programming goes on the SVOD service vs. what’s on ABC and how that will differ?
That’s been a really interesting conversation because ABC Studios and Freeform are going to be big suppliers for the DTC. Right now, it’s a very open and easy collaboration, in terms of the conversations between me, Ricky Strauss [who has oversight of the service’s programming] and [ABC Studios head] Patrick Moran. What we want to do is talk about the stable of writers that Patrick has, if they have an idea that’s better suited for one or the other, we’ve been working that out on a case-by-case basis.
Is there anything the DTC is doing that you’d like for the linear network?
Not yet because a lot of their programming is — and I’m using this generally — more family-centered, if not centric/centered. I think we’re still, especially in our dramas — and right now they’re not looking to do as much in the comedy space — our dramas feel more adult, more 10 p.m. There’s a bit more sex, drugs and rock ‘n’ roll in some of what we’re doing.
When I spoke with Netflix head of originals Cindy Holland, she said the Marvel Netflix dramas would continue to remain on that platform until the shows come to their rightful conclusions. What is the future of Marvel on ABC — especially given the DTC?
We’re cooking up a couple things for broadcast. There’s one that I want to talk about and [Marvel TV head] Jeph Loeb won’t let me.
What’s the future of Agents of SHIELD? Is the shortened 13-episode run a final season?
We’ll see. I feel like last season was our strongest creative season ever and the fan base remains very loyal — and we do very well in delayed viewing. It’s my hope that by moving it to summer, where our live-same-day ratings are less important and it might be able to continue for longer.
Modern Family‘s renewal expires at the end of this coming season. How much does the fact that ABC will soon own the 20th TV-produced comedy help with a renewal? Are you already talking about it?
At the moment, we have to relate to each other as companies doing business in the normal course. We have been having conversations about another season of Modern Family and if we can come to a deal that makes sense, it would be great to work it out.
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