LOS ANGELES—The most powerful woman at the Walt Disney Co. — and perhaps in all of Hollywood — said that she would leave her job overseeing the company’s $10-billion-a-year entertainment TV networks, leaving Disney to search for a successor in an increasingly treacherous television business.
After 18 years at the Burbank entertainment giant, Anne Sweeney surprised many by saying she would step down as president of Disney/ABC Television Group by next year to work on the creative side as a television director.
Her successor must navigate a business in transition and steer the company’s ABC network at a crucial time. The once-mighty broadcaster is in fourth place, trailing CBS, NBC and Fox in the ratings. Although all the broadcast networks have struggled amid increased competition from cable channels, over the last five years ABC’s prime-time audience has fallen nearly 20 percent.
And Disney’s networks, like all traditional television outlets, face an onslaught of competition and new online rivals, including Netflix and Amazon.
Sweeney’s planned departure also shrinks the already small number of top female executives in Hollywood. Among women who run large entertainment organizations, Sweeney had few peers — among them Universal’s Donna Langley, Sony’s Amy Pascal, CBS’ Nina Tassler, NBCUniversal’s Bonnie Hammer, Fox’s Dana Walden and DreamWorks Studios’ Stacey Snider.
Sweeney, who worked as an ABC page as a college student, said she began contract discussions with Disney Chairman and Chief Executive Robert Iger last summer. She was offered a three-year contract extension, she said, but soon found herself considering something new.
“The one thing that kept banging at the back of my brain is that I’ve loved the creative process but I’ve never really been part of it,” Sweeney, 56, said Tuesday. “If not now, when?”
Some Hollywood insiders speculated that Sweeney decided to step down after it became apparent she would not be named to succeed Iger, who plans to exit in June 2016.
Sweeney waved off that suggestion, saying she was not gunning for the top job.
“Other people wanted it for me, but I didn’t want it,” she said.
Iger is expected to name a successor to Sweeney in the next few weeks to ensure a smooth handoff as ABC enters the important period of TV pilot selection and advertising sales for the new TV season.
“Anne has been a very successful executive in our senior ranks,” Iger said in a statement. “Over the years she grew our Disney Channel business into a global powerhouse ... built ABC Family into a top cable network here in the U.S.; made ABC a strong, successful content creation engine; and has been a great partner in leading our industry into the digital age.”
Iger must now replace Disney’s only female head of a business unit. The company’s other five division heads are Walt Disney Parks and Resorts Chairman Thomas Staggs, Disney Interactive President James Pitaro, Walt Disney Studios Chairman Alan Horn, Disney Consumer Products President Bob Chapek and Disney Media Networks Group Co-Chairman John Skipper, who also is president of ESPN.
Staggs and Disney Chief Financial Officer James Rasulo are considered the leading contenders for Iger’s job.
Sweeney’s empire includes ABC and cable channels ABC Family, Disney Channel and Disney Junior, as well as Disney’s stake in the A&E Networks. (The lucrative ESPN networks are managed separately.) She first disclosed her resignation in an interview with The Hollywood Reporter.
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Known for her steely resolve, her spotless desk and her disciplined morning regimen of swimming laps in her pool, the Harvard-educated Sweeney started her executive career at Nickelodeon and FX before joining Disney in 1996 and quickly making her mark at Disney Channel.
Sweeney is credited with building Disney Channel into a worldwide juggernaut in children’s programming, revitalizing the ABC Family channel, and providing a steady hand at ABC amid a tumultuous period at the network and the entire broadcast industry.
Sweeney has played a leading role in turning children’s fare, soapy prime-time dramas and mismatched families — think “High School Musical,” “Desperate Housewives,” “Pretty Little Liars,” “Scandal” and “Modern Family” — into some of the hippest and highest-rated programs on television.
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The TV networks that Sweeney has overseen during the last 10 years have consistently portrayed some of the most compelling female characters in television. ABC also has won points for its efforts in diversity by adding blacks, Latinos and gays to TV projects and in the executive suites.
Perhaps her greatest accomplishment was turning what was a middling cable channel that ran old shows and educational fare into a global revenue engine, with 110 Disney Channels worldwide, reaching 850 million homes. The mother of two understood the importance of early childhood education and plot lines for elementary schoolchildren. Sweeney decided to refocus the cable channel on “tween” viewers, those between the ages of 9 and 14.
Disney Channel produced multiple squeaky-clean hits — creating “tween” idols such as Miley Cyrus’ “Hannah Montana” and the singing Jonas Brothers. The television event “High School Musical” made big profits in recorded music, as a big-screen blockbuster and a stage show.
Disney Channel has been the No. 1 network, among children age 6 to 14, for nearly three years.
“What Anne built was a cohesive television behemoth that stood on the shoulders of its creative content,” said Rich Ross, the former Disney Channel president who is now chief executive of the production firm Shine America.
After Disney in 2002 paid $5 billion to buy the threadbare Family Channel, Sweeney installed new management and zeroed in on changing youth tastes, allowing the network to surpass MTV as a touchstone for youth culture, particularly young women.
She inherited ABC in 2004, a few months before the network exploded with “Desperate Housewives,” “Lost” and “Grey’s Anatomy,” then kept its female-skewing hit streak alive with “Brothers and Sisters,” “Revenge” and “Scandal.”
At ABC News, Sweeney gave the green light to install Diane Sawyer as “World News” anchor and Ben Sherwood as ABC News president. Together, they packaged “Good Morning America” as the sunnier alternative to NBC’s “Today” and pushed “Nightline” into the dark hours of morning to make room for Jimmy Kimmel at 11:35 p.m.
Sweeney also was quick to embrace technological changes that have roiled the entertainment industry.
In 2005, Disney and ABC were the first to reach an agreement with Apple Inc. to sell Disney’s TV shows through the tech giant’s iTunes store. The liaison came just a few months before Disney added Apple chief Steve Jobs to its board. Later that year, ABC became the first network to offer its programs to viewers on the Internet.
“Our approach to the digital age was fast, smart and incredibly consumer-focused,” Sweeney said. “That is a source of great pride.”
“I’ve had the most wonderful life at Disney,” she added. “But I’m excited about the future. I truly want to step out of my comfort zone.”
(Times staff writers Dawn C. Chmielewski, Joe Flint and Daniel Miller contributed to this report.)
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