Anne Sweeney may be about to take on the hardest job in television: turning around ABC. Many before her—Patricia Fili-Krushel, Jamie Tarses, Stu Bloomberg, Robert Callahan, Steve Bornstein, and now Lloyd Braun—have tried and failed.
Sweeney brings a stellar record of achievement to ABC. She was one of Geraldine Laybourne's top lieutenants at Nickelodeon, she launched FX in 1993, and, arriving at Disney in 1996, she transformed The Disney Channel from a premium network into one of cable's most successful basic networks. Sweeney is the golden girl of cable. But she has never worked in broadcast TV. Different world. Different challenges.
Oxygen CEO Laybourne believes Sweeney can succeed in new environments. "She was my secretary for two weeks. She was such a poor typist, I couldn't wait to promote her," she recalls fondly, "but she knows every aspect of television and every demographic."
If Sweeney enters as expected, she would replace ABC Entertainment Television Group Chairman Lloyd Braun. That leaves ABC Entertainment President Susan Lyne, who by all reports is staying, with the daunting task of shepherding ABC's 27 pilots through May's advertising upfronts.
Insiders also confirm that ESPN programming chief Mark Shapiro is in discussions to take on a top programming role at the network, either reporting to or alongside Lyne. Shapiro is a young, aggressive executive known for developing ESPN's controversial Playmakers
and the creatively titled but low-rated Cold Pizza. Those who know him say he has been gunning for a network job for years but may balk if he has to report to Lyne.
Add into the drama ABC Television Network President Alex Wallau, who is expected to step down but stay at the company, and Touchstone Television President Stephen McPherson, whose contract expires at the end of June. Disney President and Chief Operating Officer Bob Iger also appears safe, although many say the structural changes ought go higher than Braun.
ABC would not comment on any pending management shifts.
Sweeney has long been considered Disney's Midas, turning everything she touches into gold. As head of all Disney's cable assets—including Disney Channel, Toon Disney, ESPN, SoapNet, and ABC Family—she has built an empire.
The Disney Channel has been the biggest beneficiary of Sweeney's focus, growing 36% since 2002, with hit shows Kim Possible, Lizzie McGuire,
and That's So Raven. ABC Family is struggling, but Sweeney just inherited that asset late last year.
Still, the industry is wondering whether Sweeney's cable experience will translate to broadcast success. Can she heal the ailing network? "It's not like bringing people from cable over to a network magically fixes things," says one broadcast executive. "If you work for a network, you ought to be a broadcaster. But at the end of the day, it's not about the people in these jobs. It's about the people who walk in with an idea."
At Disney Channel, Sweeney's team launched a couple of new shows per year and could afford to nurture them into hits. Broadcast development is more of a spring frenzy and demands instant hits. "I think they need to change their attitude," Laybourne says of ABC. "A lot of the short-term fixes they've done in the past haven't worked. The biggest thing she has to worry about is whether they're going to keep repeating the cycle."
After all, ABC hasn't been the most hospitable environment for ideas. Producers and agents say the network's biggest problem is decision by committee, with Eisner and Iger often weighing in on even the smallest programming decisions. That process has turned ABC into the least decisive, least risk-taking of the Big Four. And that lack of clarity has resulted in watered-down programming.
"Susan [Lyne] has to throw her body in front of the oncoming train to get anything done," says one producer who has worked with ABC. "It comes down to Eisner. No one has the vote of confidence to do what they want over there."
Many shows, such as last fall's critically acclaimed Karen Sisco, suffer under that management style. After Sisco
failed in its Wednesday 10 p.m. time slot, ABC tried to alter the creative structure of the show so substantially the producers abandoned the project.
It was a similar process with 10-8, a show Eisner reportedly loved although Braun was less enthusiastic. Sources close to the show say producers were never given a clear direction. Ultimately, it failed.
ABC has had some moderate success with its comedies, particularly According to Jim
and the new TGIF comedy block. With its myriad difficulties, though, some wonder why Sweeney and Shapiro, or anyone else, would take on ABC. "At these network jobs, you feel like you are on a slow boat to China. It's a difficult environment in which to get up every day and go to work with any kind of enthusiasm," admits one former network chief.
And ABC is a particularly difficult place to muster enthusiasm. The network has long been foundering in fourth place. It hasn't launched a successful drama since Alias
in 2001. And it places only two TV shows in the top 20: Monday Night Football
at No. 11 and The Bachelor
at No. 12.
"If you have Anne in there, it gives us confidence that things at some point in our lifetime will get better," says Jon Mandel, co-CEO of ad buyer MediaCom. "But only if the people above her let her do her job."
They'd better. Mounting pressure from Wall Street and his board forced CEO Michael Eisner's hand. Braun became his sacrificial lamb. Those close to him say Braun hopes for a buyout on his contract, which has at least two years remaining. Two weeks ago, he spent the week on the set of the J.J. Abrams pilot Lost, which is being shot in Hawaii. And last Monday, he was at Dodger Stadium for baseball's opening day. "That doesn't sound like a man fighting for his job," says one agency source.
Sweeney has the trust of Eisner and Iger. Also, she can run interference between them and Lyne and Shapiro.
But she may do so without her trusted lieutenants. Through the years, Sweeney has kept Rich Ross, president of programming at ABC Family, and Elio Hensleigh, executive vice president of worldwide brand strategy at ABC Cable Networks Group, close by. Thus far, there's no speculation the two will migrate to ABC, since she may need them where they are. That call could prove problematic. Eisner is again assigning people to positions rather than choosing a leader and letting him or her build a team.
"They are choosing reporting structures and forcing people to work together," says one insider. "That's different than empowering people to make decisions."