By Jim Benson -- Broadcasting & Cable, 10/23/2005 8:00:00 PM
From Anne Sweeney's 10th-floor corner office atop ABC's headquarters building in Burbank, the B&C Hall of Fame inductee has a clear view of the surrounding valley, mountains—and television landscape.
Rising to co-chairman of Disney Media Networks and president of Disney-ABC Television Group in April 2004, eight years after joining the company from FX, Sweeney believes the key to her job is having “the ability to focus on the future of our industry without losing sight of the day-to-day.”
She's moving rapidly on both fronts. Focusing on future technologies, for example, ABC recently announced it would make episodes of hits Desperate Housewives and Lost available to download to portable video players, a daring experiment that proves Sweeney's word. Meanwhile, she has made great strides fixing vexing problems at the ABC broadcast network and ABC Family cable channel.
A month before last year's upfronts, she put new executives in charge at ABC Prime Time Entertainment (Steve McPherson), Touchstone Television (Mark Pedowitz), ABC Family (Paul Lee) and Disney Channel Worldwide (Richard Ross).
“The most important part of leading any organization,” she says, “is surrounding yourself with the talent to achieve your objectives.”
Sweeney, now 47, started as an ABC page when she was 19. Today, she oversees Disney's worldwide broadcast, satellite, production, distribution and cable properties (minus the ABC-owned TV stations and ESPN). Additionally, she manages the Mouse's equity stakes in the Lifetime, A&E and E! Entertainment cable networks.
It's not a job for the risk-adverse. “You have to be somewhat fearless,” she says, “willing to embrace change and those new ideas that could help you achieve your goals.”
Sweeney's commitment has earned her a place among the “50 Most Powerful Women in Business” by Fortune and one of “The World's 100 Most Powerful Women” by Forbes.
Her journey began in 1981 at Nickelodeon/Nick at Nite, where she rose to senior VP in two years, acquiring the MTM Library for MTV Networks and negotiating the first international launch of Nickelodeon in the U.K.
From 1993 to '96, as chairman and CEO of FX Networks, she reigned over the largest basic-cable launch in TV history with FX, as well as the launch of FXM: Movies for Fox. She later succeeded in converting Disney Channel from a premium service to a commercial-free basic-cable service.
As president of Disney Channel and executive VP of the Disney-ABC Cable Networks, she oversaw the kids channel's jump from 41 million households in 1998 to 86 million by 2005. Sweeney launched Toon Disney, now in more than 49 million homes, in 1998.
Her success led Disney to promote her to president of Disney-ABC Cable Networks and president of Disney Channel in August 1998. Less than two years later, she launched the fast-growing SOAPnet, now seen in more than 43 million homes.
In October 2000, Sweeney added all international Disney Channels and Disney-branded programming blocks to her portfolio. Since then, she has launched eight international Disney Channels, bringing the total number worldwide to 24.
She took charge of TV animation in January 2003 and, that October, of ABC Family, which had drifted under previous owner Fox and then Disney. By the first quarter of this year, the basic-cable network posted double-digit increases in prime time and record demo ratings throughout the day.
The channel also had a strong 2004, posting double-digit increases in prime time and top marks in adults 18-34 and 18-49. It capped the year with its best individual quarter in key dayparts.
Also in January 2004, Sweeney rebranded the former Fox Kids Europe and Fox Kids Latin America.
Moving into her current role in April '04, she added responsibility for the entire ABC TV network, including prime time, kids, daytime, news, sports, late night and Touchstone, the network division that produces ABC's three breakout hits: Desperate Housewives, Grey's Anatomy and Lost, the top three new shows of last season. The shows gave ABC ratings momentum , upfront sales gains and buzz going into this season.
By November 2004, Sweeney gained oversight of Buena Vista Television and Buena Vista International Television, Disney's domestic and international sales divisions. Since then, she has overseen the launch of the now ad-supported ABC1 in Great Britain, launched on Freeview, NTL digital and Telewest Broadband. ABC's first international branded channel, ABC1 now airs during daytime hours and will expand to a 24-hour schedule. It's seen in more than 10 million homes.
Meanwhile, the popular Housewives is now licensed in more than 150 territories worldwide and Lost in more than 183 territories, making it the largest distributed property in Disney's history.
More challenges lie ahead, but Sweeney is confident her executives have what it takes to conquer them: “My team shares my healthy lack of respect for arbitrary boundaries that limit opportunity.”
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