Not everyone has a childhood that, at a glance, has the ingredients necessary for a sitcom, but Steve Wadsworth, president of the Walt Disney Internet Group, is the exception. One thing: a family with three sons. Always a good start for a sitcom. Another thing: a father with an off-beat occupation. How about nuclear submarine commander? It not only sounds like a great sitcom-father job but, no doubt, would have served a young Wadsworth well on the playground in a situation when the phrase "my dad can beat up your dad" was uttered.
Wadsworth lived in New London, Conn., until, when he was 7 or 8, his father got a job at the Pentagon. It was in Alexandria, Va., that he spent most of his youth, developing an interest in engineering, which eventually led to enrollment at the University of Virginia, where he (like both of his brothers) pursued a degree in systems engineering.
"As a nuclear submarine commander, my father was a nuclear engineer and a general engineer so there was some influence there," says Wadsworth of his educational path. "I was always sort of proficient in engineering, and it interested me as a long-term field and something I'd like to do."
After graduating and spending a couple of years in engineering consulting, though, Wadsworth wanted more. "Consulting was pretty boring, and I thought there were some things that could have been done differently from a management perspective in my company," he recalls. "So I decided to go back to school and get on the business side."
That led to UCLA, where he attended the graduate school of management as part of a Venture Fellows Program, a program that led him to the Windows Park Group, where he provided consulting services to retail and consumer-product companies.
He had some interest in working at the companies he was consulting to, but it was the early '90s, and that meant a recession in consumer goods. He found an opportunity at Walt Disney's Consumer Products division, where he became director of business planning and spent 30 months helping the division's businesses turn around and acquiring new businesses as well.
At Disney, more than two years at a staff level was a long time, so Wadsworth began looking for the next thing to do. It was 1995, and the entertainment giant was in the early days of a plan to create a Disney Online business, branding an online service targeting kids and families. He joined the team and division, initially working on business deals but then evolving into the person who kept the trains running.
Even in those halcyon days of dotcoms, Wadsworth says, market momentum forced companies like Disney to look at many things at once, often not as clearly as they should. "I had a pretty continuous level of discomfort about my ability to execute efficiently and our company's ability to focus on what we wanted to do. But that was what was succeeding at the time: the more new things you launched, the higher your stock price went."
Like everyone involved in the Internet since 1995, Wadsworth has seen the highest highs and lowest lows. Probably the lowest was when WDIG shut down the Go portal. Today, though, Disney's Internet efforts are more focused on its core audiences—and on innovation.
To that end, ESPN launched ESPNMotion, ABCNews.com began to charge for streaming-video content, and Disney soft-launched Toontown.com, an online game that is a new type of effort for the company. More important, the Internet is becoming a profitable venture.
"There is a built-in affinity for our brands with a large consumer base that we certainly can and are taking advantage of when extending them into the Internet," Wadsworth says. "No doubt about it."