“As Paul Lee Era Ends at ABC, Channing Dungey Steps Into a No-Win Job” reads the pragmatic headline in the Hollywood Reporter’s analysis of the major shake-up at ABC that occurred Wednesday. Pragmatic, because tenures in these jobs can be short, and victories elusive. You can’t please everyone all the time, but the job of entertainment president demands that you please everybody all the time.
But a “no win?” In fact, Dungey, 46, becomes the first African-American in TV history to run one of the major broadcast entertainment divisions. That fact alone is hugely important, but why exactly? After all, ABC already had (and has) primetime’s most diverse slate under her predecessor, Paul Lee, while Thursdays are the exclusive domain of one of TV’s most prolific and successful African-American producers, Shonda Rhimes. Viola Davis -- star of an ABC Shondaland series -- became the first African-American woman in history to win an Emmy for best actress in a drama just last September.
But diversity -- on-screen and off -- very much remains a seething, divisive issue in Hollywood. Dungey’s appointment comes just 10 days before the arrival of one of the most contentious and visible of those issues, the Oscars -- nominating a slate of only white actors for the second year in a row. As carriage network, ABC is closely, intimately, associated with the world’s most important and popular awards show (and the Oscars are a show). The Motion Picture Academy also now has a president, Cheryl Boone Isaacs, who is African-American -- charged with boosting diversity in the Academy and among nominees. As Isaacs has learned, change doesn’t happen overnight.
Beyond the Oscars controversy, the Hollywood diversity issue has typically focused on employment -- the scramble for on-screen jobs and particularly for off-screen ones, from the writers’ room to director jobs, and the hundreds of other jobs that comprise a major movie or TV production. Less visible in the debate has been representation in executive suites. The Ralph J. Bunche Center for African American Studies at UCLA periodically posts surveys on black employment in Hollywood, from on screen to off. The most recent survey found that “television network and studios heads were 96 percent white, and 71 percent male,” while in senior management, “93 percent white and 73 percent male.”
Darnell Hunt, the director of the Bunche center told The Los Angeles Times Wednesday, “Kudos to ABC. People of color make up nearly 40 percent of the American public and they are heavy users of TV and film. ... Having executives -- not just showrunners, actors and writers -- who are sensitive to these ideas and are in the position to greenlight, just makes business sense.”
As a practical matter, Dungey’s new role precisely mirrors Lee’s and his many predecessors over the years -- expand ABC’s audience, which in the Reporter’s estimation remains a no-win proposition. The list of reasons are self-evident: Audiences are fragmented, people don’t watch “networks” but shows, while the treacherous art of figuring out what shows people actually watch remains as fraught as ever. Moreover, the metrics of this business are now all jumbled -- a show’s staying power a few days after its live broadcast is as important as the “live performance,” while a show’s marketability overseas or to Netflix has become even more paramount than its marketability to U.S. audiences watching on TV. “Broadcast” TV in fact is simply the first door leading to a series of other doors -- or markets -- each successive one larger and more significant. Open the wrong door, and millions of dollars are wasted, along with months of time.
Dungey, a seasoned executive, already knows this well. She’s been the top drama development executive at ABC and Disney for more than a decade, worked closely on the Shondaland hits, notably “Scandal,” and before that was head of drama development for ABC Studios, where she worked on series like “Criminal Minds” and “Army Wives.” Before that, she developed other series and movies for Davis Entertainment -- a 20th Century Fox subsidiary -- for a decade or so before arriving at ABC in 2004.
She knows the score as well as anyone: Get a hit or don’t get too comfortable in that nice new corner office with the glorious view.
Dungey may not impact the festering diversity employment overnight. But what’s truly significant about her appointment -- or at least what’s irrefutably significant right at this moment -- is the undeniable symbolic power of this new job. A glass ceiling in place for over half a century has been shattered. A black woman has assumed one of the most important executive roles in television, as a gatekeeper to the viewing nation.
And if history is prologue, then perhaps even a foundation for the future has been laid. Consider that just 23 years ago, the first female chief of a broadcast network was named -- Lucie Salhany at Fox -- followed a few years later by Jamie Tarses, at ABC Entertainment. Nancy Tellem followed a little while later at CBS, and before long, top female entertainment executives were appointed at each of the other networks.
Could Dungey also be the first of many African-Americans in leadership roles at the networks? If so, television and that rankling diversity issue have just entered a new and important phase of their linked histories.
And that -- indisputably -- is a win-win.