Beverly Hills — Channing Dungey, the new(ish) chief of ABC Entertainment, has a couple of “firsts” over her head, which is rarely if ever a comfortable place for those to be. She’s the first African American, male or female, to head an entertainment division for one of the major networks. Also the first woman to run ABC Entertainment’s fortunes in well over a decade.
And one more first: She met the press Thursday (at the TV critics’ press tour here) for the first time, although you wouldn’t really know that. Brisk, efficient, upbeat, Dungey clearly does not appear to be someone who is preoccupied with those firsts — and wasn’t even asked about them. They are self-evident, after all. Also essentially irrelevant. It’s a different television world circa 2016 where diversity has gradually, irrevocably and now emphatically muscled its way into executives’ suites — Dungey as the most obvious example — and on-screen. Let the best man, or woman, win. The best show, too.
In fact, ABC may already have the most diverse stable of actors and shows of any of the major broadcast networks, and that accomplishment happened long before Dungey was named to this job in February.
She was nonetheless a critical part of its success story. At ABC Studios, which she joined in 2004, she helped shepherd along shows like “How to Get Away with Murder,” which itself yielded a particularly dramatic first — Viola Davis’s Emmy win as best actress last September. Over three-quarters of a century of television, no African American actress had ever won this award. If success has many authors, Dungey was perhaps one of them for this historic milestone.
ABC’s diversity drive is part of a Way We All Live Now or Look Now spirit applied to the biggest canvas available — network TV — but not just applied in the most obvious or immediate way either — the racial component of casts or leads. ABC has one new comedy, “Speechless,” about a family with a special-needs child — played by Micah Fowler, who has cerebral palsy — and “American Housewife,” about a woman, played by Katy Mixon, who doesn’t fit into her impossibly thin community because she’s somewhat on the plus size. That’s hardly “diversity” in the real world, but on TV where everyone else has long been impossibly thin and physically perfect, it arguably is.
Besides Davis’ win, diversity has paid off for ABC in other big ways or is poised to.
“Black-ish” is a favorite to win best comedy at the Emmys this September, and so is lead Anthony Anderson. “Fresh off the Boat” feels like a show that has some Emmys waiting for it one of these days. “American Crime,” which Dungey helped develop, has already been celebrated.
To be clear, Dungey did not arrive here Thursday waving the flag of diversity. Her first order of business was to announce a new short-run series starring Kyra Sedgwick (“Ten Days in the Valley,” airdate tbd), which will be her first starring series role since “The Closer.”
In her preamble to the press, Dungey said what sounded pretty much exactly what her predecessor Paul Lee would have also said:
“We are very proud of our brand, and in particular, we are proud of the fact that we tell stories that engage the audience intellectually and emotionally, and we are also very proud that we reflect America authentically in all of its diversity, and we definitely want to continue to move in that direction.”
But Dungey also conceded it’ll take a year to figure out exactly how to shape that direction.
“There are a lot of new challenges that come with this new role,” she said, “and I think that it’s going to be probably a whole year before I can really say with specificity exactly what that is.”
Dungey was named president in February, the beginning of the so-called pilot season: “When we were doing pilots, we have these so-called design meetings and we bring in the filmmakers and they talk a little bit about their plans for the show, and what they think it’ll look and feel like. In the ‘Designated Survivor’ meeting — referring to the new Kiefer Sutherland series about a cabinet member who suddenly becomes president -- “they brought in some footage from the Robert Redford movie, ‘The Candidate,’ where people are rushing him and pushing him every which way and he doesn’t know where he’s going. He gets into a room and says, ‘what do I do now?’ While they showed the clip I was thinking, ‘this feels very close to home…’ ”
But you do sense the word “diversity” is an important one for her, also a beacon. Even asked whether “The Bachelor” or “The Bachelorette” will one day have black leads, she said: “I would very much like to see some changes there.
“I think of the biggest changes that we need to do is increase the pool of diverse candidates in the beginning because part of what ends up happening as we go along is that there just aren’t as many candidates to ultimately end up in the role of the next bachelor or bachelorette. That’s something we really want to put some effort and energy towards.”