ABC ousts entertainment chief Paul Lee, promotes Channing Dungey

Channing Dungey is the new president of ABC Television's Entertainment Group, replacing Paul Lee. (Photo by Craig Sjodin, ABC)

In a move that surprised many in the television industry on Wednesday, ABC abruptly announced the resignation of its entertainment president, Paul Lee, who has been in charge of programming since 2010 and helped develop multiple popular shows for the network, from “Scandal” to “Revenge.”

ABC then confirmed that Channing Dungey will replace Lee, making her the first black entertainment president at a major broadcast network. Dungey joined ABC Studios in 2004, and five years later became a vice president of the ABC Entertainment Group, where she developed and produced drama pilots, along with movies and miniseries.

Over the past couple of years, ABC has become known for its commitment to diverse programming, drawing raves for comedies including “Fresh Off the Boat” and “Black-ish.” Uber-producer Shonda Rhimes’s dramas (“Grey’s Anatomy,” “Scandal,” “How to Get Away With Murder”) make up all of Thursday primetime, and she has another new series, “The Catch,” debuting in March. The network’s diversity talent casting program landed a coup last year when it snagged Priyanka Chopra, one of the biggest stars of Bollywood, to headline FBI drama “Quantico.”

But The New York Times (which first broke the news of Lee’s departure) reported that Lee ultimately clashed with his boss, Disney-ABC Television Group Chairman Ben Sherwood, over the future direction of the network. Even with Emmy-winning shows like “How to Get Away With Murder” and endlessly-tweeted series like “Scandal,” overall ratings have become an issue.

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The Times said Sherwood wasn’t a fan of Lee’s programming strategy – Sherwood wanted more procedural crime shows – and “used ABC’s soft standing in the overall ratings race” to oust him from the network ranks.

“We thank Paul for his many accomplishments at ABC and his devotion to the ABC brand, and we wish him continued success in the future,” Sherwood said in ABC’s press release. He called Dungey “a gifted leader and a proven magnet for top creative talent, with an impressive record of developing compelling, breakthrough programming that resonates with viewers.”

ABC’s 2015 fall season was a mixed bag, with shows like “Quantico” and “Dr. Ken” seeing decent numbers – though not so much for dramas like “Blood & Oil” and the immediately canceled “Wicked City.” Lee had also championed the rebooted “Muppets,” which flailed out of the gate and went through a retooling before it came back for the second half of the season.

Now, Dungey (sister of actress Merrin Dungey, who broke out on ABC’s “Alias”) will lead the charge of ABC programming in the thick of pilot season, as networks will soon decide the fate of current shows and which new series to order for the 2016-2017 season. ABC says Dungey developed and launched shows including “Scandal,” “Quantico,” “How to Get Away With Murder,” “Once Upon a Time” “American Crime,” “Marvel’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.” and “Nashville.”