As one of the most powerful executives in the media business, Anne Sweeney, co-chair of Disney Media Networks and president of Disney-ABC Television Group, has her hands full. She's not only charged with growing the company's market position in tough economic times, but also staying ahead of new-media trends and finding new ways to bring Disney into the lives of the consumer.
All the same, when asked about the challenges of her job, she responds, “I love it. Give me the next great problem.” Sweeney, who started her career typing memos for then Nickelodeon boss Geraldine Laybourne, really does relish staying on top of the constantly shifting sands of the media world.
Her latest accolade comes in the form of the Brandon Tartikoff Legacy Award, which honors outstanding contributions in the TV business. Sweeney, who hails from Hudson Valley town Kingston, N.Y., has had many mentors who've opened doors, not least her boss, Disney CEO Bob Iger.
“Conversations with him are always about what's next, what haven't we done, what can we try and really thinking outside the box,” she says. “He's always asking not just me, but all of us, to focus on the consumer.” Before becoming Iger's right-hand woman in 2004, she was president of ABC Cable Networks Group and Disney Channels Worldwide.
Besides Iger, Sweeney cites two other boldface names who had a great influence on her career path: Laybourne, who gave Sweeney her first big break at Nickelodeon (“She was quite an inspiration,” Sweeney says); and News Corp. Chairman and CEO Rupert Murdoch, who hired her away from Nickelodeon to found cable channel FX. “They are people who had a profound impact on my life,” she says.
Laybourne, back from her travels around the globe, remembers Sweeney's penchant for kilts and loafers, which, at times, could make her seem young. Laybourne recalls sending Sweeney into meetings for tough negotiations with old hands, safe in the knowledge that Sweeney would always come back with the goods having been underestimated.
'The Worst Secretary I Ever Had'
“She was the worst secretary I ever had. I had to promote her two weeks into the job,” Laybourne says. “There was nothing you could put in front of her that she couldn't accomplish. She always said what she didn't know and always asked questions, and had no fear of asking the most knowledgeable person.”
While at Nickelodeon, Sweeney was fortunate enough to meet Brandon Tartikoff. “I met him after his NBC days when he was at Paramount running the movie studio,” she recalls. Tartikoff called to say he was a fan of Nickelodeon and wanted to make kids movies and bring back the Saturday matinee. “It was a great meeting with someone whose career you watched, you admired, and to see him in this constant state of reinvention was really thrilling for me. He had a wonderful legacy in TV.”
Sweeney is also one for reinvention, saying once, “I find that I learn the most when I am most uncomfortable, when I am put in a totally new situation.” As a pioneer in the digital distribution of television shows, she pushed through a deal with Apple in 2005 to air TV shows via iTunes, and also made sure ABC was first to offer full episodes of its broadcast shows on its own online player.
More than three years on, ABC has delivered a half-billion shows and a billion advertisements, and Sweeney's attention is focused on the next iteration of television: how to make it more interactive. The company is exploring a variety of widgets that would give viewers the chance to answer polls while watching TV, or to explore an advertiser's product in greater detail.
Navigating Difficult Times
Disney, like all media companies, is facing one of the harshest consumer climates in decades. Periods of recession are where great managers innovate and deliver.
Sweeney says her greatest challenge right now is getting to know the consumer as closely as possible. “It's not about the bells and whistles; it's about making technology work much harder for people to help them through their day, to make it easier to run their lives.” She cites the ABC show Good Morning America as a great example of lifestyle information that fulfils that mission.
“During difficult times, people get back to basics. As people who serve the consumer, we have to make sure that when we're providing entertainment, it is the best entertainment they could have and when they're getting the news, that it's in context and giving depth to their lives,” she continues, “As tough as it is, we're on a great learning curve.” Disney will become smarter about content it creates and acquires and licenses, she predicts; the tough times “will sharpen our focus.”
While there's been lots of talk about radical changes in the broadcast business, with NBC and CBS signaling a change in the affiliate model, Sweeney has faith that broadcast networks will be around for some time. “I see it sticking around. The form will constantly change as our viewers change and as they grow up with multiple technologies,” but she is careful to emphasize the value of the affiliate body, saying, “These are people I want to be in business with.”
Says NATPE President and CEO Rick Feldman: “She is not afraid to take risks and doesn't believe in just going through the motions. She is arguably the highest-ranking managerial woman in the business and wears the pressures of her job really nicely.”
Working at the pulsing heart of the media business, she is, of course, a voracious consumer of media. She saw three movies over the holidays, including, Slumdog Millionaire, which she loved. Her nightstand is chock full of books by authors such as Tom Friedman, rabbi David Wolpe and P.D. James, while her iPod is loaded with ABC News content and “things my kids think I might find interesting.” She also paints on weekends—lessons were a gift from her husband—and has become interested in the work of artists Elizabeth Patton and Mary Cassatt.
Sweeney's interest in a range of pursuits, from fine art to widgets, illustrates her all-around skill. Colleague Paul Lee, president of ABC Family, says of her: “You can't run a big media company unless you get business and content. She's a champion of storytelling, but she also has one of the sharpest business brains: the classic left brain and right brain.”