Inside Disney’s Campaign to Keep Channing Dungey as ABC’s Head of Entertainment and Why It Failed

Disney loses a top executive mentored by CEO Bob Iger himself

Channing Dungey TCA
ABC/Image Group LA

Channing Dungey decided to leave ABC Entertainment despite direct appeals from incoming leaders Dana Walden and Peter Rice and a close relationship with Disney CEO Bob Iger, multiple insiders told TheWrap.

Dungey, the president of ABC Entertainment, informed her Disney bosses last week that she did not intend to renew her contract when it came up in early 2019. That led them to announce Friday that Karey Burke, head of original programming for Disney’s Freeform, would replace her.

“She was not pushed. She chose not to renew her deal which expires in February,” one knowledgeable insider told TheWrap. “As soon as she informed them that she wasn’t renewing, they made an immediate change to Karey.”

Dungey’s decision to leave despite not having another position elsewhere is a personal disappointment to Iger, who was her mentor in Disney’s prestigious mentoring program earlier in her career, according to the insider. An individual with knowledge of Iger’s thinking confirmed that Iger personally mentored Dungey, saying, “Bob was and still is a big fan.”

Dungey declined to comment for this story.

Dungey, well-liked and highly regarded, was the first black executive to be named head of a major broadcast network.

Her time running ABC had a smattering of successes — “Roseanne,” “The Good Doctor” and a solid, but expensive “American Idol” reboot — but has recently been tarnished some having lost Shonda Rhimes and Kenya Barris to Netflix, who lured the creators with more freedom and fatter checks, and a PR debacle that saw the network cancel its top-rated series in years in “Roseanne,” after star Roseanne Barr came under fire for a racist tweet.

Dungey is the most recent in a string of top black executives at the network to depart. Head of drama Nne Ebong left in August and Jamila Hunter, who was head of comedy, left in October to join Kenya Barris’s Khalabo Ink Society production company.

The losses are a disappointment to Disney given the emphasis it has placed on diversity, especially in recent years with ABC hits like “Black-ish” and “Fresh Off the Boat” and the blockbuster success of “Black Panther” this year.

No one TheWrap spoke to for this story thought Disney had an internal problem with race.

Dungey told top management who tried to convince her to stay that she “loves” Iger, but was not willing to remain. “She wants to be a free agent, she wants to test the market,” said the first insider.

While Dungey does not currently have a job lined up, the prevailing thought is that her options post-Disney would be wide open.

Before Disney announced plans in 2017 to buy the entertainment assets of Fox, Dungey, who had been at the helm of ABC Entertainment since February 2016, had been told she was in line for a broader role at Disney/ABC, the person familiar with Iger’s thinking told TheWrap.

After Disney changed course, however, opting to merge its divisions with Fox, plans for what would have been a promotion for Dungey were put on hold. When Dungey was offered a new contract but for her same position, she opted out.

Walden, who will head Disney’s non-sports TV operations, and Rice, who will serve as chairman, both made pitched efforts to get Dungey to stay, according to three knowledgeable individuals. They took her to dinner and outlined a future in which she had key responsibilities in programming decisions across all of Disney’s growing platforms.

But since neither executive is in place as yet, they were not in a position to make concrete offers, one executive told TheWrap. That executive said that Walden and Rice still hold out hope of luring Dungey back in the future.

Dungey had been at ABC since 2004 and plans to remain at the network to see through the transition period as her successor Burke takes over.

“I’m incredibly proud of what the team and I have accomplished over the years, and all the meaningful and impactful programming we’ve developed. This job has been the highlight of my career. While I’ve loved every moment, and knew I could call ABC home for many years to come, I’m excited to tackle new challenges,” Dungey said in a statement on Friday.

Group president Ben Sherwood, it was announced in September, would leave once Rice and Walden come on board.