Anne's New Army
With many lieutenants now in new places, Disney/ABC TV chief Anne Sweeney sounds off on her marching orders for Paul Lee, if she'll have a new ally in Bloomberg and the battle plan for late night
With many lieutenants now in new places, Disney/ABC TV chief Anne Sweeney sounds off on her marching orders for Paul Lee, if she'll have a new ally in Bloomberg and the battle plan for late night
It really is a new year at ABC, as Disney/ABC Television Group
President Anne Sweeney enters 2011 with a largely shuffled executive
lineup, with recent changes at the top of divisions from ABC
Entertainment to ABC News to ABC Family.
But in keeping with Disney’s recent philosophy, there are actually very
few new faces in these high places. And internal consistency is probably
not a bad idea, given the rabid changes going on every day in the
content creation and delivery business, where just finding great shows
simply isn’t enough anymore.
As she begins her first full year with the new team in place, Sweeney sat
down for a wide-ranging discussion with B&C Executive Editor Melissa
Grego. Following is an edited transcript of their conversation.
You made several big executive appointments
to your leadership team in the past year or so—
Paul Lee, Ben Sherwood, Rebecca Campbell, Geri
Wang, Michael Riley and, in late 2009, Carolina
Lightcap. As you start off the New Year with essentially
a new team in place, do you have a new
drumbeat in mind—or team slogan, if you will—
for how you want this group to operate?
My slogan has always been ‘change is good.’ I do believe
that. And when [Walt Disney Co. CEO] Bob Iger tapped
[former Disney Channel boss] Rich Ross to be chairman
of Walt Disney Studios, it did trigger a great amount of
movement in my group. That said, I’ve done a lot of
talent planning, actually for many years now.
In every single case, I feel that I have hired the smartest
people that I could find. I have cast this team to reimagine
their businesses, and I hired these people because
they are unacccepting of the status quo, they are all
entrepreneurs, they are all people who think outside of
the box. And my management style is, hire the smartest
people I can find, give them their goals and let them go.
Ben Sherwood is the only exec among those we
are discussing who was not a Disney employee
when named to his new post. Now I understand
your talent development process somewhat leads
to this, but is it safe to say you generally prefer to
My preference always is to hire smart people, but when
you hire smart people you have to be very focused on
their career development. And you have to look beyond
the job that you just asked them to do, and you
have to be thinking more broadly for career opportunities
for them within your own division and also within
the Walt Disney Co., as evidenced by Bob tapping Rich
for the studio, and when Bob tapped me, just six years
ago. I came over to Disney 15 years ago to run Disney
Channel. We didn’t have an XD, and we didn’t have a
Disney Junior. We didn’t have a lot of things. But six
years ago, Bob tapped me to run ABC and
ABC Studios, and then just [last] year,
asked me to add our owned station
group to the portfolio. So I’ve been
the bene! ciary of talent planning
as well. And it’s worked for me.
I’ve enjoyed it.
Even if you were to look
at the moves aside from
those sparked by Rich’s
departure for the film
group, this still is an
unusual number of
direct reports to
change in a given
year. Was there
They were all
were all different.
we had the
domino effect from Rich leaving, but Steve [McPherson,
ABC Entertainment chief] resigned in
the summer, we accepted, so that opened
a position and caused another domino effect.
And then David [Westin, ABC News
president] decided that after many years
of great service to ABC and to the Walt
Disney Co. that he was done. They were
Is there anything that jumped out to you that
ABC News hasn’t been doing that it should to
be more successful?
Ben’s job will be to re-imagine news for the future. He
comes from a very different background than David
did. He had been a producer for us not once, but twice.
He joined originally in 1989 with Primetime Live as a
producer, and then returned as executive producer of
Good Morning America. What followed his time as EP of
GMA was starting a Web business, the Survivors Club,
and he brings a wealth of information about the digital
space to his job. And the conversations I’ve already had
with him about news and digital have been not only
thoughtful, but very exciting.
Les Moonves last year said the broadcast news
business is due for major change and star anchor
salaries are outdated. He said Katie Couric’s deal
with CBS was the last of its kind. Do you agree?
We’ve already gone through our right-sizing of the organization,
and I believe that just speaking for ABC News,
we have our cost controls in place and we’re operating in
a very smart and appropriate way, given the marketplace.
What’s your take on the health and future of the
broadcast news business?
I can only speak for ABC, but I like our hand. I like
our brand because our brand stands for something.
We have real journalists—there are standards that we
live with. We have a brand that stands for something,
that people know, understand, recognize and most
How much of a place for opinion is there at ABC
I think there is a place for opinion, but you have to be
very careful when you’re reporting the news to make
sure you are reporting the news.
Bill O’Reilly and Keith Olbermann get big numbers.
Do you want someone like that somewhere
in your mix, or does that harm ABC News’ brand?
We actually get quite large numbers as well.
So you can do that without them?
I think Fox News is a very different brand than ABC
News. And Fox News is clearly more comfortable with,
and has the time to put on, opinion shows that we
would not be running on [our] network.
There have been reports and speculation that Disney
is considering a play to acquire Bloomberg to
combine with ABC News. Where does that stand?
I talked about it before the holidays because we were
in conversations with Bloomberg at the end of the
summer about the election to see what we could do
with them. Unfortunately, the plan didn’t come to fruition.
We recognize them as a very strong and highly
respected business news brand.
So you’ve talked about collaborating with them,
but as far as an acquisition, where does that
We’re very opportunistic. As we see opportunities to work
together, we’ll certainly be talking to them again, because
we have tremendous respect for their business news.
Can you—or do you want to—continue to operate
the news division without a 24-hour cable
component? Can you do that competitively,
especially if CBS and CNN figure out a way to
merge their operations?
I think there are many different opportunities out
there right now, not just for news but for entertainment
as well. If you look at what ABC News did when
we collaborated during the election with Facebook,
that’s a very interesting distribution platform for news.
The conversation that we were able to have with so
many viewers live during a very important and in
many cases very controversial election I found to be
quite electrifying. There are many platforms to consider
for news, and I think
we need to think expansively
as a news division going forward
and not limit ourselves
to thinking of news as just a
broadcast and/or cable play.
So maybe a Facebook play?
Given its recent penchant
for outside investment, is
Facebook something you
see Disney investing in?
Not me. It’s a good question,
but not for me.
What is your appetite in
general for acquisitions
this year? What sort of asset
would be the likeliest
Honestly, nothing comes to mind at the moment.
You just sold two smaller-market O&O stations.
It does make me wonder whether you might
pursue any strategic station acquisitions that
might be a better fit with the group. Is that
something you might be looking at in 2011?
We have no plans at the moment to expand the station
group. (For a Q&A with ABC station group chief Rebecca
Campbell, click here).
Let’s talk about how the ABC news and entertainment
divisions work together. The divisions have
been known to be somewhat at odds in the past,
with Steve McPherson and David Westin butting
heads in particular about the Nightline time
slot. What’s the dynamic you see—or would like
to see—between the entertainment
and news divisions?
Ben is really just weeks into his new job.
But early on in Paul’s tenure, the Chilean
miners were trapped and the world was
waiting to see them emerge, and I think
Paul’s background at BBC News really came
into play. He ran down the hall with [ABC
scheduling chief] Jeff Bader and said, “What
does News need? These men are going to be coming
back to us tonight, and what should we be doing?” I
think Paul’s news background will prove very helpful
to Ben. And I think since Ben has spent time in the
entertainment space—let’s not forget, he wrote a couple
of books and one was made into movie—Ben does understand
the world that Paul is operating in as well.
So why isn’t Jimmy Kimmel on at 11:35?
Because Nightline is. And we like our hand. We like
both of our shows, and feel that our offering is differentiated
from the other two broadcast networks that
program late night.
Is it worth investing in late night anymore, given
the fractioning audiences?
Yes. If you look at the ratings success we’ve had with
Nightline, and certainly we got into the game very late
with Jimmy Kimmel compared to the other networks
that had had late-night hosts for decades. Jimmy’s
made a tremendous amount of progress in seven years.
What are the biggest priorities
you have set out
for Paul Lee and the ABC
Biggest priorities for the entertainment
group are always
the best ideas. I think that
Paul and his team are people
who think out of the box.
But that team is charged with finding new talent, new writers,
new actors to work with
and ! nding ideas that break
through for us.
Should we expect to see
ABC’s brand evolving very
much under Paul Lee’s
Paul is still in development,
nothing’s gone to pilot yet. So we will see Paul’s take
come early April.
The sense out there is that Comcast is expected to
turn around NBC. Do you agree, or could that just
be rivals trying to raise expectations on purpose?
I think what we all know about television is it’s a marathon
and not a sprint. And Comcast’s purchase of NBC
Universal really underscores the high value of television.
If you could have one piece of talent on your air
who you don’t have currently, who would it be?
That’s a great question. I think we’re lucky, we have a
lot of the people that I really enjoy. I was just thinking
about Ryan Seacrest, but we just had him for New
Year’s Eve. He’s a terrific talent. I think he is the hardestworking
person in television—I have never seen anyone
so committed and do such a great job in every single venue. He produces Jamie Oliver for us, he does New
Year’s Eve. He’s a great talent.
Let’s talk about another great talent, Oprah
Winfrey: 2011 is a dramatic year for her, with
the launch of OWN. What do you make of OWN?
What impact do you expect it to have on the TV
I think Oprah was very clear in every press report I
read that she believes that it’s a marathon and not a
sprint. She delivered a very strong and thoughtful
launch, and I think she knows as a television executive
that launch day is only day one. She has some interesting
and very strong offerings. I think they’ve gotten off
to a sound start. But I have been in the launch business
for a long time, so I know what they’re facing and
how much work goes into it, and hats off to them for
How big of an impact do you expect the end of
the Oprah show in syndication, which of course
you have on some of your top stations, to affect
your stations’ business?
It certainly marks the end of an era. But we have to remember
that it is an opportunity, and as I said, change
is good. We have to remember that Oprah wasn’t Oprah
until she was. And Ellen was a jump ball, too.
Your daytime and syndication division has some
great existing syndicated properties, but how
aggressive would you like Brian Frons and his
group to be in supplying new first-run syndication
They are an aggressive group. They’re very focused on finding new talent, looking at new forms and figuring
out great opportunities for our company and for the
They haven’t taken anything out to market in
a while. In terms of volume or quantity, what
would you like to see? Would you like to see
something come out in the next 12 or 18
It’s not a question of volume, it’s really a question of
quality and opportunity for us. And Brian does have
a very strong development slate that we’re looking at.
Is there a chance we’ll see something in the next
Time will tell.
Another huge issue in broadcasting is retrans
cash and calls for retrans reform. Do you think
the system works, or is it broken?
I think the system does work. And we’ve been very
pleased that the FCC has taken a hands-off approach
and has allowed private negotiations to go without government
intervention. And we think that when left to
the parties, there are sufficient incentives for both sides
to get the deals done without interruption. I fully understand
the concerns that are raised when consumers
are adversely affected by this kind of posturing, but
we’re optimistic that Congressional policymakers will
understand that creators of popular and costly product
deserve to be fairly compensated for it.
How about the evolving relationship with your station
affiliates. The Affiliate Ad Inventory Exchange
System appears to have been a winner, yes?
Probably the most exciting thing that evolved in the last
number of months has been the inventory exchange
program. That is all about supply and demand. It’s a
great example of reimagining your business, and understanding
where the opportunity is and being " exible
and smart in taking advantage of that opportunity. We
worked with our affiliates to figure out how we could
develop this exchange plan.
It started with the affiliates buying network time,
and we just completed our first reverse-exchange plan
when the network bought local avails from the affiliates.
So we created " exibility in the business model
that never existed. It had always been, we had a fixed
number of spots, those were the spots that we sold,
and there was a wall between. We have taken down the
wall, and we are far more " exible and opportunistic
than we’ve ever been before.
You also have been up to some technology innovations.
We have in fact 15 patents pending. I think that it’s important
to look at ABC, at the Television Group and at
the Walt Disney Co. as a technology company as well as
a content-creation company. We are creating technology
to change our business, we are creating technology to
improve the production of our content.
Can you elaborate on what type of technologies
you’re talking about with these 15 patents and
things you’re developing?
Everything from the full episodes player, our app for
the iPad for ABC.com, certain aspects of the Inventory
Exchange System. We had to create technology in all of
those instances to facilitate change.
You of course were first to make that deal with
Apple and iTunes, which seems like ages ago in
TV years, and of course you made this deal in
December with Netflix. Talk to me about why
you made the Netflix deal.
You mentioned the iTunes deal—it’s shocking, it was
October 2005. What we learned and what we know
about all of our activity is, all of these deals have been
short-term deals that we used to experiment with various
biz models, pricing, and windowing. We’ve increased
our revenue, and we believe it’s incremental
and has not cannibalized any of our current business
models. We’ve increased our relevance to the consumer.
And these activities have helped to reduce piracy.
We’ve been very thoughtful about the volume and
timing to market, and we’re still figuring out the right
balance. But we don’t believe that our current mix has
hurt our company, or any other company. We don’t
believe that the current mix that we offer on these different
platforms has been harmful to our company or
to others, and no single deal or combination of deals
has created jeopardy in terms of MVPD stuff.
When a cable network or station group is considering
buying one of your shows in off-net syndication
and they say, you have that on Netflix or
iTunes and I want to pay you 20% less in license
fee than I did last cycle, what do you say?
Those conversations have gone on in one form or another
for decades, and that’s what negotiations sound
like. There’s a value we believe the product has and
there’s an amount of money a buyer wants to pay. And
that hasn’t changed.
What do you see as the growth areas of your
As steward of these businesses, my job is to create revenue
streams that don’t cannibalize each other, that support
the great programming investments that we make—
whether it’s new retrans deals with MVPDs, licensing
deals with our affiliates, figuring out new distribution
opportunities for news. Really creating added value.
International expansion is also something we haven’t
talked about. We have 96 Disney channels or feeds out
there, and just since fall of 2009 we have launched 26
new Disney products into the marketplace—whether it
was Disney Channel, Disney XD and coming up now,
Disney Junior. Most recently we did a joint venture in
South Korea, and we’ve also launched in Russia. So
that’s actually a thriving and interesting business. I’m
actually headed to London to meet with the team to
talk about the continued global expansion.
What one thing do you worry most about?
I worry about the overall health of our country and the
economy and that we are on the road back. And it’s not
so much a worry, it’s something I pay attention to—our
consumers, our viewers. What they’re watching, how
they’re watching it. Having two kids who use multiple
platforms for everything, to run their lives, to get their
entertainment, to get their news, has been very instructive,
very helpful to me. So keeping up with them. And
it’s important to remember this just started five years
ago, this great explosion of options and platforms. It’s
something we’ve only been talking about and figuring
out for five years.
Would you say ABC has a strong enough brand for your taste at the
moment and how would you describe that brand?
Very much so. We look at the Disney brand every year, we
conduct a tremendous amount of research to understand our brand and understand
how consumers feel about it. We did the same thing with ABC. Viewers do
understand the ABC brand; they understand ABC Entertainment and News as great
storytellers, and companies that focus on characters, and I'm speaking probably
more on the entertainment side but very rich characters, very rich storylines,
very high quality and breakthrough programming. If you look back on when
Desperate and Lost and Greys did, they were very fresh ideas, but whether it is
a medical show or police show the take is fresh and innovative.
How do you expect American Idol to do without Simon Cowell?
I don't know, but the one thing we always know about
television is it always continues to change. It has to retain the interest of
What about authentication technology? Is that something you're looking
at or would look at?
I think it's important to look at it and it's important that
it's consumer friendly and consumer accessible.
So that is not among those 16 Disney pending patents, one is not an
How does the the AD Lab fit into that? Is that a technology play or
more of conceptual measurement type idea?
Separate from Ad Lab is the CIMM group, the collection of
researchers from television networks, ad agencies, broadcast, cable people who
are interested in how we will measure viewing across multiple devices.
Separately Ad Lab which was really created by my group and
ESPN really explores techniques in advertising, and understanding what
advertising works and why and sharing those finding with advertisers we do
What are the growth areas as far as technology?
We'll continue to create and use technology to help our
business in a variety of ways including the ways we produce television. ... Do
you remember the episode of Grey's Anatomy with the ferry catching on fire? ...
It was a great example of using technology to create an amazing experience for
viewers. We initially had contacted the city of Seattle and the coast guard to
see if we could film -- we had this scene that Shonda wanted to do of a ferry
fire and everything that happened -- and of course they said no. Our
production folks figured out a green screen way to do this that is just
phenomenal. They ended up shooting it at a race track or parking lot. After it
aired, we got a very angry phone call saying we told you no, how did you work
it out and get it past us?
It's a great example of using technology to make a great
entertainment experience for the viewer.
That was more from the production studio, correct?
Yes, Barry Jossen and the team at ABC Studios.
Ok, aside from new technologies to fooling cities into believing you
blew things up in their waters without permission...
Yes, that's our mission in life!