“As Paul Lee Era Ends at ABC, Channing Dungey Steps Into a No-Win Job” reads the pragmatic headline in the Hollywood Reporter’s analysis of the major shake-up at ABC that occurred Wednesday. Pragmatic, because tenures in these jobs can be short, and victories elusive. You can’t please everyone all the time, but the job of entertainment president demands that you please everybody all the time.
But a “no win?” In fact, Dungey, 46, becomes the first African-American in TV history to run one of the major broadcast entertainment divisions. That fact alone is hugely important, but why exactly? After all, ABC already had (and has) primetime’s most diverse slate under her predecessor, Paul Lee, while Thursdays are the exclusive domain of one of TV’s most prolific and successful African-American producers, Shonda Rhimes. Viola Davis — star of an ABC Shondaland series — became the first African-American woman in history to win an Emmy for best actress in a drama just last September.
But diversity — on-screen and off — very much remains a seething, divisive issue in Hollywood. Dungey’s appointment comes just 10 days before the arrival of one of the most contentious and visible of those issues, the Oscars — nominating a slate of only white actors for the second year in a row. As carriage network, ABC is closely, intimately, associated with the world’s most important and popular awards show (and the Oscars are a show). The Motion Picture Academy also now has a president, Cheryl Boone Isaacs, who is African-American — charged with boosting diversity in the Academy and among nominees.
As Isaacs has learned, change doesn’t happen overnight.
Beyond the Oscars controversy, the Hollywood diversity issue has typically focused on employment — the scramble for on-screen jobs and particularly for off-screen ones, from the writers’ room to director jobs, and the hundreds of other jobs that comprise a major movie or TV production. Less visible in the debate has been representation in executive suites. The Ralph J. Bunche Center for African American Studies at UCLA periodically posts surveys on black employment in Hollywood, from on screen to off. The most recent survey found that “television network and studios heads were 96 percent white, and 71 percent male,” while in senior management, “93 percent white and 73 percent male.”
Darnell Hunt, the director of the Bunche center told The Los Angeles Times Wednesday, “Kudos to ABC. People of color make up nearly 40 percent of the American public and they are heavy users of TV and film. … Having executives — not just showrunners, actors and writers — who are sensitive to these ideas and are in the position to greenlight, just makes business sense…”