The Wonderful World of Sweeney
Her curiosity and commitment in the Disney-ABC universe are paying off
By Anne Becker -- Broadcasting & Cable, 2/24/2008 7:00:00 PM
Curiosity, change and communication are three words Anne Sweeney lives by, and these three principles have fueled a rise like few others in the television industry.
As Co-Chair of Disney Media Networks and President of the Disney-ABC Television Group, Sweeney has embraced media's multiplatform future. Interdivision cooperation is in high gear, even at a company already famous for synergy.
Most recently, that's meant partnering with affiliates to ensure they get a cut of the digital earnings, and harmonizing work between the company's many consumer divisions to propel entertainment properties, like the TV movie High School Musical or the series Hannah Montana, into multi-billion-dollar international franchises.
Sweeney will be honored with the Golden Mike Award at the Broadcasters Foundation of America gala at the Waldorf-Astoria Hotel in New York Feb. 25. The award is given each year to an outstanding broadcaster with an eye toward community service.
“I always have a list of things I'm curious about—the what-ifs,” she says. “What I read in a research report, heard on the street, saw my kids playing with—what does it mean for us?”
Sweeney oversees a vast universe that includes the ABC network, ABC News, the 27 Disney Channels Worldwide, Radio Disney and an animation studio. She also heads up the ABC Family and SOAPnet cable networks, Disney's publishing imprint Hyperion, and the company's equity interest in Lifetime Entertainment Services and A&E Television Network.
Sweeney's nearly four years in the role have led to tremendous financial growth at the company. For fiscal 2007, Disney Media Networks' revenue was up 7% over the previous year to $15 billion, and up more than $3 billion since 2004. Operating income grew 23% to $4.3 billion for the year, up 12.5% from 2006. Broadcasting operating income jumped $228 million to $703 million.
CATERING TO THE AFFILIATES
Sweeney has been heralded by ABC's 228 affiliated stations for her care and commitment to including them in the company's trailblazing efforts to embrace changes in how television is consumed. After pioneering some of those changes with ABC's famous deal to offer shows through iTunes in October 2005, Sweeney ushered in a streaming video trial on ABC.com that has since grown to more than 253 million episode views.
At first, affiliates feared being left out of the company's multi-platform expansion. But Sweeney helped arrange for them to monetize streaming by giving them each customized players on their own pages and letting them sell a local ad in every stream. The company also geo-targets its player, meaning that whenever consumers log in to ABC.com anywhere across the nation, they open the local affiliate's co-branded player.
“I deeply value my relationship with the members of the executive committee of the board and the affiliates because they really grasped that this was something that needed our immediate attention, something we shared as a challenge, and they realized that by working together we could achieve great things,” says Sweeney. “It was very important to me that in a period of great experimentation in our industry that we go into it together.”
For their part, members of the affiliate board say Sweeney generated new appreciation for their role within the company. Whereas their annual meetings had previously been an appendage to the upfront season in New York, Sweeney moved last year's meeting to the Disney Wonder Cruise Ship, which made for “an extraordinary opportunity for meaningful dialog and genuine relationship building,” says Ray Cole, chairman of the ABC Affiliate Relations Board of Governors.
“Affiliates have real concerns over what the impact of these new platforms will be, but with Anne's support over the last several years, we have developed a renewed respect for what each of us brings to the table and a genuine commitment to leverage our respective strengths in the new multiple-platform world,” he says.
Sweeney took care to educate the affiliates early on about changing patterns of media consumption, says Disney-ABC TV Group digital media executive VP Albert Cheng. “Because of the changes happening in the marketplace and the way she thinks, she's been able to ask the right questions about how we can change to bring value to the consumer, and more importantly she has been very thoughtful about how to move into this space and bring our partners with us,” he says. “With everything we're doing, she always has the affiliate in mind.”
UP THROUGH THE RANKS
Sweeney's achievements in broadcasting are all the more noteworthy because she spent the greater part of her career coming up through the ranks of cable television as that industry itself was growing. In fact, just weeks ago she was inducted into the Cable Hall of Fame. She was named to the B&C Hall of Fame in 2005.
She has a masters in education from Harvard and was initially interested in teaching after college. Instead she joined Nickelodeon, where she spent 12 years, ultimately as the senior VP of program enterprises, and helped the kids' network grow its reach across the world. She moved on to News Corp., where she was chairman/CEO of FX Networks and helped launch two basic cable networks, FX and FXM, Hollywood's first studio-based movie channel.
She joined Disney in 1996 as president of The Disney Channel, where she pulled off something that had never been done before: taking the channel from a premium service to a thriving free cable network. She soon rose to president of ABC Cable Networks Group/Disney Channels Worldwide.
“Cable was then, and I believe still is, a real roll-up-your-sleeves, dive-in-and-figure-it-out, new, changing business,” Sweeney says. “And that is exactly what broadcast is confronted with, all the new technologies rolling into our companies. We're pressed to be innovators.”
In 2004, she was tapped for her current role, a huge step up from her first job as a page at ABC in New York. Having grown up indulging her love of the arts through ballet, piano, flute and art lessons in Kingston, N.Y., the promotion also returned her to her geographic roots.
In that first job, Sweeney regularly encountered ABC News legend Barbara Walters in the halls, although she recalls having been told never to respond if the star talked to her. Walters, who says she didn't know such instruction was being given to the pages, now praises Sweeney for her caring responses to the needs of the company's talent pool.
“When I have a problem that has to be solved or a situation that is uncomfortable, I know that if I need her, Anne will be there for me as she is for others,” Walters says.
Sweeney says she lives her professional life by five principles, three of them set out several years ago by Walt Disney Co. President/Chief Executive Officer Bob Iger. The Iger mandates are to create great content, commit to technology and broaden internationally. Sweeney added two more areas of emphasis: the company's culture and its efforts to create franchises.
The focus on culture resulted in an annual survey for everyone in the TV group about what their work is like, and four task forces to address areas of improvement. The franchising effort has made enormous stars—and money-generators—out of properties such as High School Musical and Montana by weaving together Disney's various consumer entities. The TV movie is projected to bring in $650 million in retail sales alone this year, while the blooming TV star/singer set a record with her 3D theatrical movie for the biggest opening ever on Super Bowl weekend.
“What she's been particularly good at is making people work together,” says William Morris Agency CEO Jim Wiatt, who has worked with her for 10 years and cites her big-picture thinking with resulting in broadened deals between Disney and William Morris clients like General Motors. “She's helped create the opportunity for people to work across different disciplines and created a synergy there that didn't exist before.”
Colleagues praise Sweeney not only for her care in balancing the needs of divisions within the company, but for her consistently calm demeanor. Nearly everyone who talks about her mentions her ability to stay focused and collected, whatever the issue.
“This is a time when we've got mature businesses and really aggressive startups running in parallel, and one of the reasons Anne is so successful is she's very focused and able to jump between the two,” says ABC Family President Paul Lee, whom Sweeney recruited to run the channel four years ago.
ABC News President David Westin calls Sweeney an inspiring and invaluable leader who has seen the news division through the launch of its 24-hour digital service, ABC News Now; a presidential election; the tragic loss of Peter Jennings; and the wounding of Bob Woodruff and his cameraman in Iraq.
“Anne draws upon her optimism and her grace in keeping her focus firmly on the future—the future of our own organization and the future of the entire industry,” he says. “In short, none of us could wish for a better leader, through whatever may come our way. “
Sweeney's colleagues on the entertainment side have similar praise. “When Anne and I both came into our jobs about four years ago, ABC was in fourth place,” says Stephen McPherson, president of ABC Entertainment. “She has been incredibly supportive through all the ups and downs of rebuilding a network schedule, which made it possible for us to achieve so much so fast.”
Says Endeavor co-founder Rick Rosen, who has known her for more than 20 years, “Anne is very analytical and she approaches problems in a very reasoned, intelligent fashion. You always get from her a clear, honest answer and one that's without hyperbole and very direct. She works incredibly hard and deals with people she works with in a very fair and even-handed way.”
BALANCING LIFE AND WORK
While she says she's not sure if there is such a thing as a perfect work/life balance, the mother of two holds the concept dear in her own life and those of her colleagues. Each year, for example, she sends out a note before the first day of school urging employees to take the day off to go with their kids on what can be a scary morning for them.
“It's very important to me that the people I work with have a life and have interests and passions and the ability to fully realize them,” she says. “It makes them more interesting people, more fun to work with, more innovative, and it means they're out in the world participating in it. We're a media company. We rely on people who can translate those experiences because they have them themselves.”
Despite almost-constant travel, Sweeney puts her own family life front and center. Married to lawyer Philip Miller, the pair have a daughter, Rosemary, almost 18, and a son, Chris, almost 22, who is autistic. Sweeney has occasionally opted out of industry panels at conferences for meetings at the kids' schools and is a leader in Chris' school, The Help Group.
Her experiences with Chris led to a friendship with Warner Bros. TV President Peter Roth, whose daughter is autistic. When both were at Fox some 15 years ago, they shared regular lunches even though their business areas didn't overlap. They forged a bond that continues today.
“In Anne, I found a great friend—somebody I could talk to, somebody who understood our situation in life, somebody who is extraordinarily empathetic, and that speaks to why she's such a great executive,” he says. “She's a great listener and handles herself with such grace and such calm—I'm a huge fan.”
Active in several industry organizations and nonprofits, including board positions at the Paley Center for Media, the Special Olympics and Cable Positive, Sweeney has been a strong advocate for family-friendly children's programming.
“Few people defend family-friendly programming the way Anne has, and we owe her a debt of gratitude for recognizing that our children are not only a worthwhile investment, but our most precious resource,” says Federal Communications Commissioner Deborah Taylor Tate.
She was also picked by President Bush to be part of a delegation that went to Shanghai to attend the Special Olympics last year, an experience she calls transformative. It's something she keeps in mind as she continues to transform her own company and forge her own career path.
“The jobs I've taken have been jobs I was curious about or I didn't know how to do or was maybe just a little bit scary because it was going to be a stretch,” she says. “I've been intrigued by running this portfolio of brands and services, and it's made that much more exciting by the possibilities of digital media. I've never had a promotion-to-promotion plan, really. I just followed my curiosity.”
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