New Day For Disney

Sweeney helps turn tide for once-struggling networks

As rival Viacom moves to split up its broadcast and cable assets in January, Disney ABC Television Group President Anne Sweeney preaches the virtues of corporate synergy. Overseeing Disney’s worldwide cable, satellite, TV production-distribution and broadcast-network holdings (minus the stations and ESPN) since April 2004, she has supervised a rapid ratings and financial turnaround at the once-troubled ABC and ABC Family, among others. As the new season got underway, she spoke to B&C’s Jim Benson about her mission and challenges.

ABC Family was a mess when you took over the cable group. What did you do to turn it around?

I hired [producer] Paul Lee [as president] because I felt that he had such a strong creative vision for the network.

What was missing before?

Probably the most important piece was asking, Who is our audience? This is a network that is designed for 18-34s. Programming to that group is not easy, but I really think that, given Paul’s taste and experience, he is pulling it off.

Is there is a place for repurposed network shows on general entertainment cable networks?

It really depends on what it is. We’ve done some marathons of ABC shows on ABC Family, but we’ve been very selective.

Do you want to grow your division’s portfolio?

I am very happy with the portfolio we have right now. We are covering all demos all the time.

What were your marching orders when Michael Eisner and CEO Bob Iger came to you to do this job?

They wanted [me] to use every tool and every asset of this company to develop franchises that are not just successful on their platforms here, but successful on a global basis. … There is an expectation here that you will continue to build with your technology tools [i.e., broadband].

Now you have to oversee a network that develops scores of shows each season, versus just one or two for cable.

It is less about filling time slots and really about finding the best show. Lost, Desperate Housewives and [Disney Channel’s] Raven … are strong franchises.

Do you think Grey’s Anatomy, Housewives and Lost helped change the perception that cable is more creative than broadcast?

I think when [they] premiered, it did dispel the notion that all of the creativity only lived in one part of the industry and not the other.

What about the notion that the previous ABC management regime had good shows from time to time but seemed to have trouble scheduling and marketing them?

I can’t speak to the past. I can tell you, for the past year and a half working with [ABC Entertainment President] Steve [McPherson], he has paid terrific attention to all of the components—not only making the show but also the very smart and strategic scheduling of it, and equally smart promotion.

Did you spend a record amount of money to market Housewives and Lost?

We were within our budget. We didn’t go crazy. I think it was because we picked our spots that it drew so much attention.

Have you seen the prime time gains that you’ve made translate to other dayparts?

We have seen increases in part because of the increases in prime time, but also due to shows getting stronger and better.

Given that Good Morning America is more profitable to you than the evening news, would you consider plucking out GMA co-host Charlie Gibson to be the anchor?

We haven’t determined how we’re going to handle World News Tonight yet, but we’ve been having active discussions.

Any interest in buying an older-skewing network like The Hallmark Channel?


Looking at cable, do you have a plan to move forward?

We do for Disney Channel, which is to keep growing it [internationally], watch the marketplace carefully and see where the new opportunities are.


Day by Day Planner

Jan. 25-27, Mandalay Bay Hotel & Conference Center, Las Vegas Our top picks of panels and speeches; see your official guide for the full schedule