Credit: ABC/Ben Mark Holzberg

ABC is strategizing how best to boost the ratings of Kiefer Sutherland’s freshman thriller Designated Survivor.

Though the White House drama made a strong debut last fall (and garnered decent reviews from critics), overnight numbers slumped alarmingly as the Wednesday night series progressed — from a 2.2 down to a 1.2. So what happened? We spoke to ABC entertainment president Channing Dungey about the show’s numbers and its plan to creatively tweak the series. While she doesn’t blurt out “it’s Donald Trump’s fault,” we got the impression ABC suspects a lack of interest from viewers who are disheartened by the election’s outcome accounts for at least some of the show’s struggle to gain traction. (For the record, ABC said later she was talking about the election in general not the outcome, but you be the judge).

“Look, in terms of the ratings, the show has not performed quite as strongly in the Live/Same Day [Nielsen ratings] as we were hoping,” says Dungey. “I think some of that has to do with White House politics fatigue, because when you look at how we do over [seven days of DVR playback], we’re regularly going up in triple digits. So the show is actually doing quite well [in the longer-term measurement] … It’s challenging right now in terms of making political shows just in general because there are big changes afoot in the world we live it.”

It’s true the DVR playback numbers for the show tell a much better story. Season to date, Designated Survivor‘s average cracks the top-10 list of broadcast entertainment shows. Yet behind the scenes, ABC announced last month that it’s replacing showrunner Jon Harmon Feldman with Jeff Melvoin as part of a plan to modify the show’s creative mission.

“What we do want to try to do — and what we’ve definitely heard from the fans — is to delve even further into the characters and some those relationships,” she said. “It’s not that we are going to stop being a show that has great plot twists and really moves forward in a suspenseful way, but we do want to get a little deeper inside of [Sutherland’s character President Kirkman] and some of his colleagues and really spend a little bit more time invested in the character relationships.”

In other words, making Designated Survivor a bit less like Homeland Lite, and more in line with ABC’s sweet spot of sudsy relationship-driven shows.

We also asked Dungey what the election was like for the ABC programming team, which not only handles Designated Survivor but also Scandal, which delves heavily into politics.

“You’re creating shows that are in a fictional universe and trying to separate that from anything else that’s happening,” Dungey says. “At the end of the day, though, people are invested in the stories and in the characters. In the case of Scandal, this is a six-year relationship now that the fans have with Olivia and Fitz and the rest of the gang. With Designated Survivor, it’s a newer show, but I do think there’s still an appetite for wanting to tell stories that, because they deal with real world issues, have parallels to the world but still exist in their own fictional space. But I think only time will tell. Right? We’re only two months into this new landscape, so I think we’ll have to see how things land.”

— Natalie Abrams contributed to this report

Designated Survivor
Kiefer Sutherland returns to TV in this ABC political drama. The 2016 new fall show follows his rise to president when all other cabinet members tragically die. Natascha McElhone, Italia Ricci, Adan Canto, Kal Penn, and Maggie Q also star.
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