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Sweeney Steps Into the Fire At Disney’s ABC

4/25/2004 8:00 PM Eastern

Over the years, a variety of cable veterans have transitioned into the cutthroat world of broadcast TV, with mixed results.

Next up: Anne Sweeney, who was just put in charge of the beleaguered ABC Television Network.

Last week, several TV executives who have worked both sides of the fence — broadcast and cable — described the broadcast side of the business as extraordinarily provincial and clubby, and wary of “outsiders” such as Sweeney.

“What you’re going to hear, I’m sure, is, 'What does she know about the [broadcast] network business?’ ” said one such cable official, who didn’t want to be identified. “Well, excuse me, but is that business not broken? Is that business not a mess? What do the people in it know about it?”

Still, cable executives have not always been a good match for the Big Four. Doug Herzog, about to rejoin Comedy Central from USA Network, had a brief stint at the Fox broadcast network a few years back. And Chris Moseley, the former Discovery marketing whiz, didn’t have a long marriage with ABC.

That didn’t deter The Walt Disney Co. last week from putting Sweeney and George Bodenheimer, its two rising cable stars, in charge of the company’s TV networks — as co-chairs of the Media Networks unit — in a long-expected management reorganization.

Bodenheimer remains president of ESPN Inc. and ABC Sports. Sweeney keeps her old responsibilities as president of the ABC Cable Networks Group — and becomes president of Disney ABC Television.

“For the short term, the top priority is very clearly primetime at ABC,” Sweeney said last week.

But she’s also tasked with rescuing another struggling asset, ABC Family, which is in the midst of contract negotiations with Time Warner Cable, according to sources.

Sweeney took a step in that direction by hiring BBC America CEO Paul Lee as president of ABC Family. That network came under Sweeney’s purview late last year.

ABC, now ranked fourth among the Big Four networks, and ABC Family, for which Disney paid a whopping $5.2 billion, have been flashpoints in a shareholder revolt against Disney chairman and CEO Michael Eisner.

Cable colleagues praise Sweeney as “whip-smart,” buttoned-down, focused and unflappable — and up to the task of succeeding where others have failed at ABC.

PRAISE FROM PEERS

“It’s actually a masterstroke because what the [broadcast] network business needs is people who understand brand building,” said Ken Solomon, who worked with Sweeney on the launch of FX in 1994 and is now president of Fine Living, a Scripps Network.

“She understands the long view of programming,” he said. “She understands how to identify talent and to how build programs into nights, into franchises. And she also knows how to cut through a lot of the chatter that comes through our business and think about the audience and the way the audience thinks and feels.”

Others are more skeptical, citing the brutal nature of the broadcast-TV business, as well as Eisner and Disney president Robert Iger’s continual micromanagement.

One cable executive said that while Sweeney has experience in brand building, “that’s sort of a long-term view.”

“The network business more and more and more is all about tomorrow: 'We got through Wednesday night, how do we get through Thursday night?’ They don’t spend a hell of a lot of time looking down the line. The broadcast industry is changing rapidly, but it’s still not the cable industry.”

Sweeney’s reputation was built by transforming Disney Channel into a high-rated, widely distributed basic channel, and successful launches of FX for Rupert Murdoch and SoapNet and Toon Disney for Disney.

“My cable experience is invaluable, because my cable experience is television experience, and I’ve been very much a part of building, rebuilding, repositioning networks; very much a part of the process of making television shows,” Sweeney said. “I have 26 years of television experience that is very valuable coming into this. Certainly, there are differences in the way broadcast and cable are run, and that is the quick/fast learning curve for me.”

READY TO GO

She’s undaunted by the somewhat rocky path some cable officials have had in broadcast.

Sweeney points out that the first person she knew who ever took that route was Peter Chernin, who went from Showtime to Fox and now is News Corp. president. She views Disney’s TV outlets as taking viewers from childhood to adulthood, starting with Disney Channel, with ABC Family in the middle and ABC in the rear.

Initial efforts, undertaken by then-ABC Family president Angela Shapiro, to take advantage of synergies between ABC and ABC Family, by repurposing the broadcast network’s shows on the cable outlet, for example, were lackluster at best — and largely abandoned.

In contrast, NBC has been a great platform for its acquisition Bravo. The hit Queer Eye for the Straight Guy received traction via promotion and replays on the Peacock Network.

Sweeney said there’s a reason for joint efforts like repurposing to work now between ABC Family and ABC.

“Because we have a much clearer focus on the ABC Family brand now, now we can revisit [repurposing],” she said. “It really has very little to do with adding the broadcast network to my responsibilities, it has a lot more to do with refining the brand vision of ABC Family. So now we’re a better network to deal with because we can articulate our position.”

LEE’S 'FRESH VIEWS’

BBC America, with 38.4 million subscribers, has gotten traction and buzz by bringing British Broadcasting Corp. shows to the states. But that quirky programming is targeted to a very different viewer — upscale, urban, sophisticated and adult — than ABC Family, which aims for the 18-to-34-year-old demographic.

Sweeney said Lee has what she was looking for in a chief for ABC Family.

“I was watching a lot of BBC America and thinking, 'This is innovative, that’s a smart move, that’s an interesting show,’ ” she said. “I wasn’t looking to make ABC Family into BBC America, but you look at the work of other programmers. … I was just curious to meet this guy to see how he thought and what he thought about television and introduce the idea of ABC Family, and get a sense of what he would do if he were running it.”

Lee, who couldn’t be reached for comment last week, “came up with a lot of very fresh and very innovative views of what he would do with this asset,” Sweeney said.

Kathryn Mitchell, Comedy Central’s senior vice president of programming, worked alongside Lee at the BBC in London, when he was running BBC Prime.

BBC America is a feast of repurposed fare from the BBC, while ABC Family needs original programming.

“Obviously, that will be the challenge, dealing with original content,” Mitchell said. “But Paul was a producer himself.”

And the focus at BBC America has been on gaining distribution, by promoting shows like the Golden Globe-winning The Office, not on ratings, as will be the case at fully distributed ABC Family, according to Mitchell.

OTHERS IN MIX

The executive directly in charge of revamping ABC’s programming, and who will report to Sweeney, is Steve McPherson, most recently president of Disney’s Touchstone Television and now president of ABC Prime Time Entertainment.

Rich Ross, Disney Channel president of entertainment, was promoted to president of Disney Channel Worldwide, a post Sweeney previously held. He’ll be responsible for management of Disney Channel, Toon Disney and international networks.

The big surprise was that Susan Lyne, president of ABC Entertainment Television and considered one of ABC’s most savvy programmers, left.

As expected, Lloyd Braun, chairman of the ABC Entertainment Television Group, also departed.

“It’s telling that a company the size of Disney clearly recognizes the strengths of the people in cable to go run the entities that are in most need of leadership, from Paul Lee to Rich to Anne to George,” said Ray Solley, founder of The Solley Group, which consults on cable programming.

UPFRONT TIME

All the changes put ABC back at square one in terms of the attempt to rebuild its primetime lineup, right before the upfront, according to Laura Caraccioli-Davis, senior vice president and director of Starcom Entertainment. But she said she was excited that Disney had put “a very strong team in place” at ABC, with cable’s Sweeney.

“People from the broadcast Hollywood community always look at cable people as being outsiders,” Caraccioli-Davis said. “Hopefully, people won’t hold it against her. There’s a certain arrogance that goes along with being a network programmer versus a cable programmer.

“Hopefully, the field has leveled there, because cable has had the majority of the hits the past year, with Nip/Tuck, The Shield, The Osbournes, Punk’d. Everything is coming from the cable side. Maybe the timing is such that somebody with such a high pedigree in cable can come over and be enabled to do the job at a network.”

Sweeney maintains that, despite the many skeptics, she won’t be micromanaged by Disney’s upper echelon.

“I think about my relationship with Bob and Michael, and I’ve been given a lot of autonomy and I’ve been given a lot of creative freedom to work with the Disney brand and to launch and build new businesses,” she said. “I have every reason to believe that’s going to continue.”

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