When I learned that Channing Dungey was replacing Paul Lee as ABC’s president of entertainment, my first thought was "that was fast." After all, it was only 2010 that Lee stepped in for Stephen McPherson. But consider this: Within that six-year period, every one of the five broadcast networks has shuffled its entertainment president.
So really, this is business as usual.
What happened this time? According to ABC, Paul Lee had simply "stepped down." The press, however, painted Lee as the loser in a "power struggle" with his boss, Ben Sherwood, President of Disney/ABC TV Group. The real reason? ABC’s ratings in primetime are slipping. And when the ratings cool, the network chief gets the boot. Regardless of what else was going on, it’s the only reason that matters.
At this point in the season, ABC is down to the No. 4 network in both adults 18 to 49 (1.8 rating/6 share) and adults 25 to 54 (2.2 / 6), according to Nielsen. Last year at this time, it was third in both categories (tied with Fox in adults 18-49). The erosion is 14% and 15%, respectively.
In other words, Paul Lee was not exactly excelling at his job. Nor were the endless list of fired executives to hold the role before him.
To be fair, other factors at present (the rise of digital, specifically) make it a challenge for any broadcast network to maintain viewership. So, anyone inheriting this job may feel like he or she signed up for a suicide mission. But in order to succeed like entertainment presidents of old (think Fred Silverman and Brandon Tartikoff), you need to be in tune with your audience. You must have the ability to understand what the viewers want to see. And I happen to think there has been a disconnect for years between the suits (and skirts) sitting in their windowed offices and the actual people consuming content.
This leads us to Paul Lee.
Touted for bringing more diversity to ABC (and the broadcast network landscape in general), Lee was responsible for series like "black-ish," "How to Get Away With Murder" and "Fresh Off the Boat." But the new crop of ABC entries last fall included clunkers like "The Muppets," "Blood & Oil" and "Wicked City." Upcoming midseason dramas "The Catch" and "Of Kings and Prophets" are already plagued by behind-the-scenes issues (like showrunner changes and general retooling). The Marvel franchise continues to expand despite the lack of traditional ratings for "Marvel’s Agents of SHIELD" (which is still a concern despite the social-media interest). Critically acclaimed "American Crime" is lacking an audience. And TGIT-occupants "Scandal" and aforementioned "Murder" have suffered notable losses after being benched for three months. Lee also planned on foolishly renewing deteriorating dramas like "Castle" and "Nashville."
But it is always the connection to the audience – or lack of – that will make or break these folks.
Years ago, I remember a conversation I had with legendary producer Aaron Spelling. He was certainly not a network programmer, but his track record in drama was far better than any producer in the history of television. And the words he spoke, I think, should be inform the mindset of any programming chief.
"I don't fly, so when my wife and I go anywhere, we go by train," he told me. "I talk to the people on the train. I ask, "What do you like? What do you look forward to?" We also like taking cruises. And that is how "The Love Boat" was born."
Spelling also explained to me that the idea for "The Mod Squad" was born when a policeman friend told him the police department was recruiting young people. And "Family" (the 1970s drama featuring Sada Thompson) came from a conversation he had with some friends at dinner.
As someone who does feel a connection to the audience, let me offer some words of advice to Channing Dungey to keep this from being yet another suicide mission.
1. Don’t sugarcoat ABC’s issues. Be honest with the press and create an atmosphere of trust and credibility.
2. Know when to end a declining series.
3. Take risks and be creative, but remember that your audience wants to be entertained. We want to sit back and forget about our troubles.
4. Young people are your target audience, but do not forget about the viewers with proverbial "snow on the roof" (who may actually have money to spend).
5. Stop re-creating prior hits. Think outside the box.
Finally, "Rome wasn’t built in a day," and this goes for ABC. So, be aggressive, but exercise some patience, Miss Dungey. And take a page from the late, great Aaron Spelling: talk to the people. These are your true bosses, after all.