ABC, ‘Black-ish’ Home, Says Diversity Includes Trump Backers

  • ABC’s Channing Dungey, on the job 11 months, seeks wide appeal
  • New pilots include Reba McEntire as smalltown Kentucky sheriff

Channing Dungey, the first African-American to lead entertainment at one of the Big Four television networks, already has one of the most diverse lineups in TV at ABC, with shows like “Black-ish” and “Fresh Off the Boat,” about Asian immigrants.

But there’s a part of the population she’s now working harder to reach -- Trump voters. Dungey, who’s been on the job for 11 months, is retooling ABC’s programming lineup to include more shows that appeal to rural America, men and lower-income families.

LOS ANGELES, CA - SEPTEMBER 18:  Channing Dungey attends the 68th Annual Primetime Emmy Awards at Microsoft Theater on September 18, 2016 in Los Angeles, California.  (Photo by Matt Winkelmeyer/Getty Images)

Channing Dungey.

Photographer: Matt Winkelmeyer/Getty Images

“If we’re talking about diversity and inclusion, I want to make sure we’re inclusive of everyone,” she said in an interview Tuesday at the Television Critics Association winter programming preview. “When you think about the name, we’re the American Broadcasting Company.”

Dungey’s comments reflect questions being raised in news and entertainment after the surprise election of Donald Trump. While journalists are asking how they failed to gauge the extent of the Republican presidential candidate’s popularity, entertainment executives wonder if there’s a big group of consumers they’ve overlooked. Casting a wider net could be a smart business decision.

“It makes a lot of strategic sense,” said Tim Calkins, a marketing professor at Northwestern University’s Kellogg School of Management. “Executing it will be the challenge.”

Dungey, 47, was given a tough task last February when she succeeded Paul Lee as president of entertainment for Walt Disney Co.’s ABC network. ABC is in third place in total viewers among the four major broadcast networks and last in the younger 18-to-49-year-old demographic that advertisers target.

Shares of Disney fell less than 1 percent to $108.56 at 9:42 a.m. in New York Thursday.

Sheriff Reba

Changes are under way. ABC on Tuesday announced it would produce a pilot for an as-yet-untitled, one-hour drama from “Desperate Housewives” creator Marc Cherry. Country singer Reba McEntire will star as a small-town Kentucky sheriff who has to work with an FBI agent of Middle Eastern descent to solve a crime.

“When Marc and Reba came in they had a very specific idea of what that town would look like and who that sheriff would be and I just loved it,” Dungey said. “If you look at our comedies we have a lot of diversity in that, less so in our dramas.”

Under Dungey, the producers of “The Catch,” about a female private investigator who falls for a con artist, will take a more lighthearted approach in the show’s second season. The series stars Mireille Enos from “The Killing,” and Peter Krause, from “Parenthood.” The network also showed off the cast of two new comedies this week, “Downward Dog,” about a talking pet, and “Imaginary Mary,” featuring sitcom veteran Jenna Elfman and a computer generated character who serves as her internal critic.

More Laughter

“What I feel the mood of the country wants at this time is things that are a little more escapist, promising a more emotional connection, more laughter, more joy, more humor,” Dungey said. “There was the time we were the home for one-hour comedies, ‘Desperate Housewives’ and ‘Ugly Betty.’ We’ve gone into this development season thinking a lot about that.”

Not everyone in network TV thinks their programming needs to be retooled to attract a suddenly discovered demographic group.

“When you look at our lineup we think we have done a pretty good job of appealing to different communities in our country, different segments of our society,” Gary Newman, co-chairman and co-chief executive officer of the Fox Television Group, said in response to a question Wednesday at the critics association meeting.

He pointed to a schedule that includes the irreverent animated hit “Family Guy” and “Empire,” the saga of an African American music industry family. Still, he said the unit of 21st Century Fox Inc., which also trails CBS and NBC in viewers, would evaluate its slate in May to see what programming changes might be needed.

Still Committed

ABC hasn’t abandoned edgy programming or the network’s commitment to a more conventional view of diversity. “When We Rise,” a series about the gay community’s fight for civil rights, will debut next month.

Dungey worked her way up through the production side of ABC, where she helped develop shows from producer-writer Shonda Rhimes that make up the network’s Thursday night lineup, including “Scandal” and “How to Get Away With Murder,” which feature strong female, minority leads.

The ABC programming chief has yet to prove her changes are working. ABC’s nightly prime-time audience is down more than 6 percent to 6.73 million viewers on average this season from the same period a year earlier.

“We’ve done some encouraging stuff,” Dungey said. “I came into this knowing we had work to do.”

Tim Graham, director of media analysis at the conservative Media Research Center in Virginia said he’s a big fan of ABC’s comedy “The Middle,” about a middle-class Indiana family struggling to make ends meet.

“It would seem to make sense at this juncture, when all the hipsters are streaming on Amazon,” Graham said of Dungey’s strategy. “It underlines something we’ve been saying for years on the conservative side. We are a market.”

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