Channing Dungey entered the spotlight this past May when she abruptly canceled ABC’s wildly successful reboot of Roseanne after its star tweeted an offensive slur about former Obama administration adviser Valerie Jarrett. The incident drew attention to Dungey and the network at a critical juncture: It’s fending off streaming giants like Netflix—which recently poached two of ABC’s top showrunners, Shonda Rhimes (Grey’s Anatomy, Scandal) and Kenya Barris (Black-ish)—while attempting to attract new viewers.
Fast Company: You renewed Roseanne earlier this year, canceled it following racist tweets from Roseanne Barr, and then quickly green-lighted a spin-off. Do you have any regrets?
Channing Dungey: When we first thought about rebooting Roseanne, it was for all the right reasons. We talk a lot about diversity and inclusion [at ABC], and we try to walk that walk both on-screen and behind the cameras. But when I looked at our slate of programming, particularly in the wake of the 2016 election, I realized that one audience that we were really not serving was working-class Americans. [After we canceled the show], the only thing keeping me up at night was thinking about the cast and crew—and the writing staff that had come back to play in that sandbox and tell those great stories—and feeling disappointed that it wasn’t going to be able to continue. So I was really elated that it was able to come back together [with the Roseanne spin-off, The Conners].
FC: Are you more cautious now about vetting talent?
CD: People have a right to express their opinions in a private forum or a public one. It’s not our job to be the police. But at the same time, we try to hold ourselves to certain moral and ethical standards, and we expect the people who work for our company to do the same. I don’t know that anyone has the perfect solution yet. It’s something we’re all trying to work toward.
FC: You’re going up against streaming companies that put up an entire season of a series all at once and throw money at showrunners, and you’re trying to woo audiences who are now accustomed to binge-watching. How do you position a network to compete?
CD: It’s an apples and oranges conversation. These are two different [kinds of] businesses, and they serve two different needs. For us it’s not about competing with Netflix. Streaming is something you do for you, which is why Netflix has your profile, your husband’s profile, your kid’s profile. Broadcast is something people tend to do together, whether it’s families watching comedies or friends who watch The Bachelor and drink wine and talk to the screen. I’ve made the decision in this role to look for shows that can be watched together. It’s one of the reasons I wanted to bring American Idol back: It hit that sweet spot of something that you can watch live, you can watch as a family, and that you can [turn into events] with live shows.
FC: How do you keep showrunners from decamping to streaming services?
CD: The advantage we have in broadcast is reach and scale. Showrunners want stories to be heard by the people who need to hear them. I’ve had people come in and say, “This is a story that I want to tell, but I don’t want to do it in an echo chamber.” For a series like last year’s The Good Doctor, we had 18 million viewers. It’s hard to do that in streaming.
FC: Before you became head of ABC entertainment in 2016, you spent most of your career as a development executive, overseeing shows including Scandal and Grey’s Anatomy at a very granular level. What was it like to step into a less hands-on role?
CD: I think of myself as a creative partner. It’s my job to [point out] aspects of a story that aren’t landing for the audience. The best writing comes from the head and the heart. So you have to acknowledge what it took to get those words on the page in the first place. If I do a good job of identifying the problem, then it’s going to spark something new in the writer. I try not to intercede too often. When I do, I want to make it count.
FC: What’s your advice to producers?
CD: It’s important to make sure that the network, which is basically your client, is happy—and at the same time to not compromise. Because that happens: You have a showrunner who doesn’t have a particularly strong point of view, and they’re anxious to be helpful and collaborative, so they try to address all the notes [they get from the network]. It’s like trying to make a stew and putting in every single ingredient in your kitchen. It ends up tasting like nothing. So the question is, Where do you draw the line in terms of making compromises [and] delivering a quality product?
FC: Network television is so dependent on ratings. Have you ever fought for a show despite its poor numbers?
CD: The first season of Scandal was only seven episodes, and it did okay. Creatively, it was terrific, but it just hadn’t quite connected with the audience. There was talk of canceling it. I believed in Kerry Washington, and I was extremely proud of the fact that we had the first African-American female lead on a series in something like 37 years. In front of the leadership at that time, which was [former president of Disney/ABC Television] Anne Sweeney and [Disney CEO] Bob Iger, I said, “As a black woman sitting at this table, I think it’s important for us to be making this show.” I argued vociferously for it. There are moments where you have to say, Look, I know the data doesn’t support it. But if it’s something you believe in, you owe it an opportunity.
FC: Thanks to Time’s Up and #MeToo, there’s a lot of talk about getting more women involved at networks and studios across the entertainment industry. Most of your direct reports are women. Is that something you’ve consciously fostered?
CD: When I was [ABC’s executive VP of] drama, I was sitting next to a female head of comedy, a female head of casting, a female head of marketing. It’s been that way for a little while. But then you look at the stats and [realize] that there’s a lot further we have to go, particularly in terms of making sure the right people are getting promoted. I think it helps when you have senior-level women like myself who are working moms. It gives people confidence that this is a company that’s open to and supportive of people who are starting a family.
FC: As the first-ever African-American head of a major network, do you feel the burden of representation?
CD: If having this job is going to inspire other young women of color to think that they can sit in this chair, then that’s a huge responsibility that I take very seriously. But outside of that, I’m just trying to be the best person at this job that I can be.