When Channing Dungey joined ABC Television Studio as VP of drama three years ago, her first assignment was Grey's Anatomy. The midseason medical show had a decided advantage: It debuted behind ABC's red-hot soap Desperate Housewives. That show's success is TV history, and Grey's went on to be a hit in its own right and moved to Thursday nights.
So far, the drama is Dungey's crowning achievement in a young but promising career.
“Channing is the whole package,” says ABC Television Studio chief Julia Franz. “She is dynamic, excellent with material and has great taste. She puts writers at ease.”
Says Grey's Anatomy creator Shonda Rhimes, “As a development executive, Channing has a crucial but rare quality: She's truly creative.”
Dungey arrived at ABC by way of the movie business. Prior to joining ABC, the 38-year-old UCLA film graduate was a development executive in features at Warner Bros., where she worked on 19 movies, But moving to TV seemed natural because she was a big fan. (Coincidentally, Dungey and Franz were acquainted from their childhood in Sacramento, where they attended the same high school.)
At ABC Television Studio, which produces shows for other networks, too, Grey's is hardly her only assignment. Dungey propelled CBS' Criminal Minds and ABC's What About Brian, She championed Lifetime's new drama Army Wives since it was pitched several years ago.
Along the way, Dungey says she is learning difficult lessons on what differentiates a hit from a failure. “It is disheartening, but you learn quickly that a show you are proud of can go down if the show doesn't find an audience to take them into their hearts,” she says.
Dungey sticks to the tried-and-true tactics for developing her dramas: Give the creatives room to work. Her role, she says, “is to be on the lookout for the creative process and put out the best show but also make sure we are prudent and practical. This is a business.”
And Dungey is known for getting creative herself. When Rhimes and Co-Executive Producer Betsy Beers wanted to shoot an episode where the Grey's male doctors go camping on location near Seattle, Dungey pushed them to shoot extra footage for future episodes and promotions to maximize the value of the shoot. But when the creators wanted to stage a ferryboat accident for a sweeps episode, Dungey had a more economical solution. Rather than an expensive location shoot, Grey's used computerized animation to simulate the scene.
Says Rhimes, “Channing does whatever she needs to do to help us get the show right.”