ABC Entertainment president Channing Dungey has had her hands full trying to explain Black-ish creator Kenya Barris’ exit from the network.
Barris officially left ABC in July after frustrations with the network piled up. An episode of Black-ish, which featured the characters talking about the NFL kneeling controversy, was shelved. It was a decision that many people found suspect since Roseanne seemed to be getting away with badmouthing ABC’s more diverse family sitcoms, including Black-ish and Fresh Off the Boat.
Along with the Black-ish situation, some of Barris’ other projects never came to fruition. As we reported back in July, those projects included “political family comedy Libby & Malcolm, starring Courtney B. Vance and Felicity Huffman, a Toni Collete-toplined CIA drama which was a passion project for Barris and an Alec Baldwin comedy.” It’s rumored that he, too, will end up with a nine-figure deal at Netflix, which is now the home of another ABC alum, Shonda Rhimes. Rhimes has already announced the first of several projects for her new creative home, a series based on an article published in New York Magazine called “How Anna Delvey Tricked New York’s Party People.”
“First of all, Kenya’s broader relationship with the Disney-ABC Television Group goes on, because he still is very involved in Black-ish, he has Grown-ish, he has a new show, Besties. So there is still an ongoing dynamic with Kenya,” Dungey said to Variety. “I think creatively for writers there is a cycle and I think part of what happened for Kenya, outside of this episode–because with this episode, we had all been excited to have this one stand alongside episodes like ‘Lemons’ and ‘Juneteenth,’ and ultimately we all felt, Kenya, the studio, the network, that we hadn’t got to this place creatively where we were telling the story in a way that felt like it could stand alongside those, so the decision was made to shelve it.”
Dungey said to the outlet that she felt “he had come to a place creatively where creatively he wanted to do some things outside of what broadcast allows you to do, where you don’t have to worry about act breaks, and you don’t have to worry about standards and practices, and I understand that.”
Dungey continued this train of thought in her interview with The Hollywood Reporter, in which she repeated that the kneeling episode wasn’t Barris’ breaking point with ABC.
“There were certainly frustrations there on all sides, and we came to a mutual decision not to air the episode,” she said to the outlet, adding that broadcast has challenges. “People struggle with act breaks, with Standards and Practices, with the needs and the points of view of our affiliates,” she continued. “Sometimes it’s easier to tell certain stories in the streaming space.”
It’s worth noting that Dungey consistently lumps Barris in when she discusses how everyone decided to can the kneeling episode. It paints a picture of Barris being fine with it being shelved, when other accounts point to that not being the case. Barris said during Variety’s Path to Parity Summit he was prepared to protest if they decided to keep Roseanne going after Roseanne Barr’s incendiary tweet comparing former Obama staffer Valerie Jarrett to Planet of the Apes.
It’s also hard to say what “standards and practices” mean, especially when it comes to talking about that specific episode. With Dungey’s comments about “standards and practices” not being met and advertisers not being thought of, it reads like she’s passive-aggressive about the wrong issue. It’s also a hard phrase to swallow when ABC was willing to go all in on Roseanne, despite Barr’s history of racist, xenophobic, conspiracy-laden tweets. However, Dungey said to Variety that the decision to go ahead with Roseanne was because of her belief in second chances.
“We spoke with Roseanne and the producers at the beginning about her past history with the understanding that she came into this with a desire to share some very important stories, to shine a light on a part of the country that hadn’t had a spotlight on it in a while, and she was very much saying that she was aware of her behavior in the past and was very much looking forward to starting with a clean slate here,” said Dungey to the outlet. “I am a believer in second chances, and we all felt like we were going to put our best foot forward and hope for a good result. And it did not end up that way.”
To Dungey’s credit, she told The Hollywood Reporter that it wasn’t a difficult decision to pull Roseanne of the air once Barr’s tweet went viral.
“It felt like a line had been crossed, and we needed to stand by our values as a company,” she told the outlet. When answering another Hollywood Reporter question about if the tweet was the final straw, Dungey said, “It’s not a secret that she has had a tendency in the past to be sort of outspoken and go off-book. We’ve had multiple conversations about wanting to keep the focus on the show and not to let some of the other stuff eclipse the show. So in some ways, this was a last straw. But it was also such an egregious tweet that it felt like no matter what, there would have been some action that we would have taken.”
With ABC now without both Rhimes and Barris, Dungey was asked by The Hollywood Reporter about who she is excited to work with from the producers joining the ABC family thanks to the ABC-Fox merger.
“We have a great relationship with 20th TV already, and I have loved and continue to love working with [Fresh Off the Boat showrunner] Nahnatchka Khan,” she said to the outlet. “We have Single Parents that we’re doing, and just saw Liz Meriwether closed a new deal with 20th, that’s exciting to see. They have an amazing roster, as does ABC Studios. If this all comes together, it will be an exciting time.”
The future will also be an exciting time for those of us who are Barris and Rhimes fans, which means a good chunk of ABC’s audience will be either splitting its time between the network and Netflix or may decide to leave ABC altogether. ABC is definitely in a state of flux right now without two of its top performers, and it’ll be interesting to see how much stock the network will continue to put in the revamped Roseanne without Barr, The Connors. If one of Dungey’s answers to The Hollywood Reporter regarding The Connors is any indication, it seems like some lessons still might not have been learned.
“The show is not about politics,” she told the outlet. “People keep wanting to make it about red vs. blue [states], and we dealt with that very effectively in the first episode with Roseanne and Jackie’s different political views. The subsequent episodes are very much not about that. It’s a family comedy.”
Every show, even family shows, are about politics on some level, and Roseanne and The Connors are a part of the political conversation since the main reason for greenlighting Roseanne in the first place was to cater to middle America, aka the Trump voter. Once again, the playing field doesn’t feel even if Roseanne gets yet another chance via The Connors and the Black-ish kneeling episode never gets aired for murky reasons.