ABC Entertainment head Paul Lee, the man who brought you shows like “Scandal,” “How to Get Away With Murder” and “American Crime,” is gone, off to wherever deposed broadcast executives go (i.e. basic cable, or their own production companies).
To succeed him, Disney-ABC Television Group President Ben Sherwood has chosen ABC drama chief Channing Dungey, who developed those shows for Lee. She will be the first African-American woman to run a broadcast network.
Dungey has been with ABC since 2009, back when the network was looking awfully monochromatic. Under her watch, producer Shonda Rhimes, the showrunner for massive hit “Grey’s Anatomy,” was given more chances to knock shows out of the ratings park, building an entire “Shondaland” block (the name of Rhimes’ production company) with “Scandal” and “How to Get Away with Murder” on Thursday nights; Dungey also developed the network’s freshman FBI soap “Quantico,” with Bollywood star Priyanka Chopra in the lead.
Lee was a bit of an odd duck, a Brit who liked to throw around buzzwords like “sticky” and “delicious,” and thought what Americans really wanted was a version of “The Muppets” where all the Muppets were awful, sad, felt adults. (They did not, as the freshman comedy has lost 76 percent of its premiere audience and won’t be renewed.)
All the same, when the news of Lee’s departure broke in the New York Times, the timing seemed odd: Networks are currently full-bore into the pilot process by which the shows you’ll watch in the fall are chosen. Dungey immediately sliding into his role makes sense — the network keeps a measure of continuity during the most important part of the year, an already contentious time when hundreds of millions of dollars are in play.
ABC has 12 comedy pilots in the works, and 12 dramas. Dungey now has control over which shows won’t be replaced by one of those pilots.
Though ABC is the clear winner when it comes to making shows that reflect America’s ethnic makeup — on the comedy side, there’s “Fresh Off the Boat,” chronicling the Chinese Huang family, “Dr. Ken,” starring Ken Jeong from “The Hangover, and “black-ish,” about a middle-class black family — ratings for shows like “Scandal” have been oases in a desert of awfulness, for the most part. Expensive duffers like “Nashville” and “Blood & Oil” have taken up valuable scheduling real estate. Even Shondaland drama “How to Get Away With Murder,” the big new hit of 2014’s fall, has seen its blockbuster status drain away due to the cruelties of a 10 p.m. timeslot, where the DVR reigns as king of viewership.
That wouldn’t be a huge problem, but ABC upped the price of a commercial spot in the show a massive 40 percent from last year, to around $230,000 per 30 seconds of air time, and has been unable to meet the ratings guarantees such high prices require. The promise of make-up spots to get enough eyeballs for those guarantees has media buyers grumbling, a no-no as Madison Avenue begins to think about how it wants to spend its $70 billion (the amount of ad dollars spent on TV) for the next year.
“Murder” is hardly doing badly enough to end up on the chopping block, but the message Sherwood is sending is clear: More “Scandal”-s, fewer “Wicked City”-s.