But recent signs suggest that ABC is entering a new and more complicated era, and the network isn’t alone — the number of women and people of color creating new shows declined across the industry as a whole in the 2017-2018 television season. And it’s striking, if a little tricky to discuss, that ABC’s reputation for bold discussions of race has hit a rough patch under the leadership of Channing Dungey, who became the first African American woman to serve as president of a major broadcast television network in 2016.
Last August, hitmaker Shonda Rhimes, who had a long relationship with Dungey dating back to the latter’s tenure as head of ABC’s drama department, announced she was leaving the network for Netflix. Her departure came shortly after ABC announced a revival of “Roseanne” to air in 2018 despite Roseanne Barr’s increasingly provocative off-screen behavior — and in the show’s third episode, Barr’s character took a shot at ABC’s “Black-ish” and “Fresh Off the Boat,” which feature an affluent African American family and a first-generation Taiwanese immigrant family, respectively. Variety reported in March that ABC itself had shelved an episode of “Black-ish” that dealt with social issues including the National Football League players who took a knee during the national anthem, citing “creative differences” with series creator Kenya Barris. The news prompted speculation that Barris might try to follow Rhimes out the door.
Dungey’s tenure at ABC illustrates the danger of pinning hopes for systemic change on individuals in executive suites. Breaking barriers and serving as a role model is valuable, but it’s rarely enough to change the dynamics that govern an entire industry. And it’s not necessarily fair to ask these trailblazers to shoulder that burden alone, especially when they’re tasked, as Dungey was, with pulling a channel that has long lingered in fourth place among the broadcast networks out of a prolonged slump.
When Dungey became ABC Entertainment president, she was quick to reaffirm the value of diversity to the network. But after Donald Trump was elected president later that year, Dungey started framing her approach in economic, rather than racial, terms. Trump’s election, wrote the Hollywood Reporter’s Lacey Rose, “forced [Dungey] to question whether her programming was too focused on upper-income brackets.”
That may sound like a dodge, of a piece with many pundits’ insistence that Democrats lost in 2016 by focusing too much on identity categories such as race, gender and sexual orientation, and not enough on dividing lines such as class. But ABC’s challenge was a business problem, not a political one.
As Dungey tried to pull her network out of the cellar, the issue wasn’t that the ABC’s diversity push had won it African American (and in the case of “Fresh Off the Boat,” Asian American) viewers at the expense of white ones. In fact, the majority of the audiences for ABC’s “Black-ish,” “How to Get Away With Murder” and “Scandal,” all of which had black ensemble casts or black leads, are non-black. Instead, the issue was that the network had catered to the sort of affluent viewers who might be particularly turned on by the fabulous kitchens in “Modern Family” and “Black-ish” or attuned to Olivia Pope’s fantastic wardrobe and wine habit on “Scandal.” Those viewers are valuable to advertisers. But they aren’t necessarily so valuable that a broadcast network like ABC can afford to cater solely to them and forgo the profits that come from reaching a larger audience.
As Dungey began to pursue that larger audience, she did so by using the language of diversity. After the show’s return to the air proved a ratings smash, she positioned the “Roseanne” reboot as a continuation of the strategy that had given ABC breakout hits such as “Scandal,” “Black-ish” and “Fresh Off the Boat.” “We had spent a lot of time looking for diverse voices in terms of people of color and people from different religions and even people with a different perspective on gender,” she told the New York Times. “But we had not been thinking nearly enough about economic diversity and some of the other cultural divisions within our own country.”
So far, Dungey’s attempts to secure a broader audience have shown some success. “Roseanne” has pulled in strong ratings and has already been renewed for a second season. “The Good Doctor,” ABC’s show about a young surgical savant, also earned a pickup. By contrast, the network’s revival of “American Idol” has not yet justified the series’ hefty price tag. In that sense, Dungey has done what she and all other network presidents are paid to do: claw her network up in the ratings in the hopes of locking in high advertising rates for the subsequent season.
Maybe it’s possible to succeed at television’s established game while also reinventing the rules of the broadcast television business. Maybe there’s a way for ABC to balance a project like the “Roseanne” reboot with shows that expand what’s possible for network television to say on the left side of the spectrum as well. (Though that shelved “Black-ish” episode bodes poorly for this project.) Maybe by making all sorts of Americans feel represented, respected and heard, broadcast television can do something to bridge the ugly divide that has riven American politics.
Maybe. But maybe that’s just a nice dream, a way to try to give meaning to what was once a vast wasteland. And even if that ambitious dream is achievable, it’s an enormously difficult project to make the responsibility of a single executive at a single network. There’s a difference, or at least there ought to be, between celebrating “black girl magic” like the accomplishments and resilience of women such as Dungey and the sort of magical thinking that suggests one leader can change the dynamic of an entire industry.
ABC’s attempts to adapt to a new moment aren’t the end of the diversity movement in American pop culture. But with any luck, they represent the end of a simplistic idea about what it will take for that movement to succeed.