Major shakeup at ABC sends Paul Lee out the door

ABC_MeetingChanning Dungey becomes ABC Entertainment president; First African-American woman to run a major network

When it comes to CBS, you always hear the tagline “We’re America’s Most Watched Network”.

When it comes to ABC, it’s always “We’re always in third or fourth place”.

And it’s the sinking fortunes that led to ABC Entertainment President Paul Lee’s departure.

The alphabet network and the phrase “number one” hasn’t always been used in the same sentence – except during the late ’70’s, the mid 90’s, and the short period when Millionaire dominated the ratings. Once coasting on hits such Desperate Housewives and Lost, ABC is struggling again, with the network in its worst position since 2004. If there’s any upside, at least the atmosphere at ABC is better than it was in 1974, when Happy Days hadn’t hit its stride yet and Marcus Welby was more than ready for retirement – or to put it more bluntly, ready for the show and what’s left of its hapless fanbase to be put out of its misery.

Lee came in and while vilified at first by yours truly, became a champion of diversity at the network, helping develop programs with diverse racial casts in front of and behind the camera – a hot topic button currently in Hollywood. During his tenure he picked up critically acclaimed comedies Fresh Off The Boat and Blackish, and adding dramas How To Get Away with Murder, Scandal, and Once Upon A Time.

However, ABC ratings took a tumble this season as its development slate did not pan out. The Muppets revival was a flat-out ratings and critical disaster. Ratings for its Thursday night drama block are down double digits, even with DVR usage added in, proving Murder and Scandal are not the buzzed hits they once were. Wicked City was the season’s first cancellation, after only a few episodes.

Not helping matters is Lee clashing with his boss, Disney/ABC Television Group President Ben Sherwood, ultimately resulting in his firing.

And so now the task of turning around ABC falls to Channing Dungey, becoming the first African-American – male or female – to run a broadcast network, being promoted from. She has serious credentials – she helped develop ABC’s “TGIT” -branded lineup, among other things.

In inheriting the mess Paul Lee was stuck with, Dungey has to create hits – something not easy to do in this day and age when more and more viewers – particularly in the young demos – are abandoning linear (live) TV for streaming services and DVRs. In that regard, ABC renewed fifteen shows for the 2016-17 season on Friday, including veterans The Bachelor, Dancing With The Stars, Marvel’s Agents of Shield, and Shark Tank. The only freshman shows renewed was Quantico.

On the other hand, shows officially on the bubble include Agent Carter, Castle, Muppets, and Last Man Standing, which should have been axed three years ago. As for Carter, its chances hinges on whether or not an ABC pilot featuring Hayley Atwell gets picked up.

This comes as Disney’s stock price is suffering – in part due to ESPN losing homes as a result of “cord-cutting” and “cord-shaving”. In fact, all media companies are feeling pressure from Wall Street to improve earnings. Even CBS is feeling the heat, despite its TV success – the company is cutting costs in its radio division, resulting in the loss of key people – notably WXRT’s Norm Winer, who resigned from the station recently after 37 years.

Lee understood the importance of having a more diverse television industry as the nation becomes more and more racially diverse – a notion lost in most quarters, including Chicago and other major markets, where there are still very few minorities holding executive positions in the TV and radio industries and the move toward greater diversity has been banal at best.

The promotion of Dungey is great for the industry – now let’s see if she can do the job.