Cable-industry insiders are speculating about where Steve Bornstein — the executive who built ESPN into a sports juggernaut — will land, following his abrupt exit as president of ABC Television last week.
"Given where he is [in his career], he needs a big platform," one source said. "He needs to be the boss completely."
Bornstein, a 22-year veteran of The Walt Disney Co., said he was leaving the ABC post, which he has held for a year, to pursue other interests. Bornstein reportedly had grown frustrated in his job, a position in the management-heavy, bureaucratic Disney company that four others have held over the past several years.
At least one industry source said that Bornstein is a candidate for the CEO post at Fox Cable Networks Group, a slot that became vacant when Jeff Shell left to become co-president and chief operating officer of Gemstar-TV Guide International Inc.
A Fox Cable spokesman declined to comment. Bornstein, described as having an entrepreneurial bent, couldn't be reached for comment.
Bornstein's ABC duties had included oversight of ABC Family Channel, which Disney acquired for $5.2 billion last year from News Corp., Fox Cable's parent, and Saban Entertainment.
Bornstein could be a mighty weapon for Fox Cable to wield as it competes against ESPN, its sports-programming archrival. But one longtime cable official said he couldn't imagine Bornstein going to work for the company he was up against for so many years, and doubted Bornstein would agree to toil alongside David Hill, chairman and CEO of Fox Sports Networks.
Others said that Shell's old job "is not big enough" for Bornstein.The cable-veteran source suggested that Bornstein's expertise would make him a better fit at Comcast Corp., which owns such networks as Outdoor Life Network, Golf Channel, QVC and E! Entertainment Television.
ESPN executives expressed shock over Bornstein's departure. ESPN senior vice president and executive editor John Walsh said Bornstein opened up a lot of minds in his aggressive approach to running the network.
"Bornstein focused on what was most important to the viewers — he was a fan of the fan," Walsh said. "He always talked about the possibilities and not about the barriers that got in the way. He knew how to surprise people."
Before he was named president of ABC Television, Bornstein served as chairman of the Walt Disney Internet Group, president of ABC Inc. and president and CEO of ESPN. Bornstein spent 20 years at ESPN, joining the network during its first year, as manager of programming. He's credited with growing the network into a sports empire, with spin-off services like ESPN2 and ESPNews and ESPN the Magazine.
At ABC, Bornstein's responsibilities included oversight of a broadcast network that's trying desperately to jump-start its ailing ratings. In a management-heavy company, Walt Disney president Robert Iger has taken an active role in the attempted turnaround. These factors could have created a situation that a hands-on executive like Bornstein would find difficult.
"He's a very direct, no bulls—t guy," the industry source said. "He tells you what he thinks. That kind of stuff is difficult to pull off in the Disney organization. It has all those MBAs running around, second-guessing him."
An ABC spokeswoman said that one reason Bornstein felt comfortable leaving at this time was that ABC Family is in good hands. He recently named Angela Shapiro, former president of ABC Daytime, as president of ABC Family.
"He has enormous confidence in her," the ABC spokeswoman said.
Shapiro, who had reported to Bornstein, will now report to Iger.
There are no immediate plans to replace Bornstein, said an ABC spokeswoman, but there may be a restructuring at the network in light of his exit.
Lifetime Television president Carole Black has surfaced as a possible recruit to help in the ABC turnaround, but Lifetime continues to vehemently deny that she is a candidate. But Black, whose contract with Lifetime just expired, reportedly hasn't signed a new deal.
Ratings at ABC Family, which is now repurposing some ABC shows, have improved since Disney took over. In April, its primetime ratings grew 29 percent, to a 0.9 from a year ago.
ABC Family still has expired contracts with a half-dozen MSOs.
"We're continuing to have positive, productive conversations," an ABC Family spokesman said. "We hope to have some deals to announce soon."