New ABC President Channing Dungey talks 'whirlwind' week and her plans for the network

ABC made history this week when it tapped Channing Dungey to be president of ABC Entertainment.

In a shake-up, the former ABC drama chief replaced Paul Lee, becoming first African American executive to lead a major broadcast network.

The-46-year-old TV veteran is best known for helping to develop such Shonda Rhimes-produced hits as “Scandal” and “How to Get Away With Murder.”

Now she is charged with helping to improve ABC's fortunes in a changing media landscape. The network's ratings fell 13% this season.

The Times spoke to Dungey and her boss Ben Sherwood, co-chairman of Disney Media Networks, by phone on Friday to discuss Dungey's appointment and what's in store for ABC.

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Channing, your appointment and the abrupt departure of Paul Lee caught some in Hollywood off guard. Were you surprised by the appointment?

CD: I think the timing definitely came as a bit of
a surprise. Paul has been a really great mentor to me over the years and I had always felt that there was
a sense that I might be his successor should it come
to that, but the timing of these things — one day, I was doing one job and the next day, I was doing a different one.

I've been really fortunate to have been at the company for a long time. It is always great to feel like you're going to step into a new role that's going to allow you to stretch and to grow. I feel like anything new forces you to reach deep inside yourself and find out what you're made of. When I was given this opportunity to step forward, sure, there are things about it that feel daunting, but there are also things that feel really exciting.

Ben, can you talk about your motivation behind the decision?

BS: I know we're in the entertainment business. So I get that drama and timing make for a good story. But I think that's overblown. Paul did a lot for ABC. It was time for a change. And we need fresh air and new thinking. We all believe that ABC can do a lot better. And, so, in terms of motivation, we're building a team that is committed to telling great stories, working closely together and, also, building bridges across Walt Disney Co. We're very focused on reaching audiences in new and innovative ways, and that's what Channing is all about. She's about creativity, collaboration and innovation.

ABC is facing some challenges right now. What are your plans to boost the network's ratings particularly among younger audiences?

CD: When it comes to my plans and my strategies, it has been sort of a whirlwind 72 hours. I'm actually just getting up to speed. Obviously, I know the drama pilots really well. And I'm starting to read the comedy pilots and getting a sense of what's happening there. I do feel like we have a lot of fantastic resources here that we've yet to tap to their fullest. I look forward to conversations with Ben about that over the coming weeks.

BS: I would say, just to jump in on that, Channing is the right leader at the right time. She is incredibly creative. She's a magnet for talent. She's wonderfully collaborative. She's open to new ideas. She works easily and well with all the other leaders in Disney, ABC and across the Walt Disney Co. She's respected and liked across the creative community and throughout Hollywood. She's smart. And, as I said, she's savvy about business. She's the total package.

You're the first African American to be name president of a major broadcast network. A lot of people view this as an historic moment, do you see it that way?

CD: The whole thing has been a little overwhelming. It's hard to see it in a big picture way when you're sort of at the center of the storm. For people to say, the things that they've said, I'm grateful for this opportunity; I'm humbled by the great things that people have said. In terms of looking at this as maybe being a role model, I've always been very focused on being a role model for my daughter. And if I can inspire young women to pursue a career path in entertainment because of this, that would be a wonderful thing.

Paul made programming shows with diverse casts and stories an important part of ABC's strategy. How important is that to your mission?

CD: It's enormously important to me. It has been part of my mission in my old role and it will continue to be to be as diverse as we possibly can--both in front of and behind the camera. It makes sense from a storytelling perspective, it makes sense in terms of reflecting the world that we live in. And it also makes really good business sense.

BS: We are fully committed as America's broadcasting network to reflect the great diversity of the country. As Channing just said, it's vital for our audience, it's vital for our business. And in the decisions behind the scenes, and on the camera, you are going to see more of it in the days ahead.

It's a difficult position to step into this environment when broadcast networks no longer command the audiences they once did. How do you plan to address that challenge?

CD: Hopefully by making good television. Look, it is definitely a different landscape than it was when I joined the business. That said, there are still a ton of people watching television, they're just watching it in different ways than they used to. We're focused both on our linear model and then, also, looking at the different digital opportunities out there to share our stories with the world.

BS: I would add that broadcasting remains a very vital, very strong part of Disney/ABC's portfolio. We're not resting on any laurels. We are at work everyday on imagining the future of broadcast and we are bringing in new people with great expertise around consumer insights and the digital space to help shape and re-shape what broadcasting is in the years ahead. So we are very focused on the future.

Ben, what was your mandate — or Disney President Bob Iger's mandate — for Channing? What have the discussions been like?

BS: The conversation is all about the future and about making big, popular entertainment that engages audiences and that delights and surprises. We've actually had conversations with Bob where he remembered 20 years ago when he had Channing's job and he described the wonderful opportunity to shape culture, to surprise audiences, to get people excited about television. I think the mission that Channing has — that we all have here — is make ABC even stronger and to make ABC even more successful and to make ABC even more profitable.


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