Disney Combines Affiliate Crews

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The Walt Disney Co. is merging the affiliate-sales forces of ESPN and the ABC Cable Networks Group, promoting ESPN veteran Sean Bratches to the leadership of the new combined operation.

Bratches, most recently ESPN's executive vice president of affiliate sales and marketing, was named to the newly created post of president of Disney and ESPN Networks Affiliate Sales and Marketing, effective immediately.

Bratches reports to both George Bodenheimer, co-chairman of Disney's Media Networks unit and president of ESPN and ABC Sports, and Anne Sweeney, co-chairman of Media Networks and president of Disney-ABC Television.

PYNE'S NEW TITLE

As part of the consolidation Ben Pyne, ABC Cable's senior vice president of affiliate sales and marketing, has been promoted to the slot of executive vice president of Disney and ESPN Affiliate Sales and Marketing. He reports to Bratches.

“We're going to take best practices from both sales organizations and marry them into something that's going to support our affiliate business well into the future,” Bratches said.

The consolidation, taking effect Oct. 1, puts 10 cable networks under one tent, potentially giving Disney more leverage with distributors for weaker services, like ABC Family.

Bratches maintained that the merging of the two affiliate sales teams won't result in layoffs, and that ESPN's affiliate-sales team has been adding personnel “virtually every year” for the past decade, despite overall industry consolidation.

“My intention is not to have any layoffs as a part of this, but find ways to utilize the many smart people that we have in both organizations to build broader relationships, broader product portfolios, more value for our affiliates,” he said.

ESPN has 92 employees in affiliate sales, while ABC Cable has 68, according to Bratches.

TIME WAS RIGHT

The affiliate-sales merger marks the first major change on the cable-side of the business that Bodenheimer and Sweeney have made since they were both promoted and named co-chairs of Disney's Media Networks unit in April.

“This [consolidation] has been something that's been discussed internally for some time, and with George and Anne's leadership positions over at ABC Inc., they made the decision that now is the appropriate time to look at this,” Bratches said. “They felt it was the best thing for our affiliates and it was the best thing for our company to go in a coordinated fashion.”

He pointed out that local ad sales for ESPN and ABC Cable were integrated in fall 2000 with much success, and customer marketing and national ad sales for ESPN and ABC Sports were merged in 1999.

In the case of ESPN and ABC Cable, affiliate sales will be merged and centralized for ABC Family, Disney Channel, SoapNet, Toon Disney, ESPN, ESPN2, ESPN Classic, ESPNews, ESPN Deportes and ESPN HD.

A related change: the ABC Cable Networks Group is also being renamed Disney ABC Cable Networks Group.

The consolidation won't take place until the fall, because Disney is on a fiscal year that starts in October. Bratches said he'll use the time to meet with the ESPN and ABC Cable affiliate-sales teams to create a organizational structure that works best.

“I want to involve as many people as I can from both organizations to help me develop strategies to build this new organization,” Bratches said.

Disney can potentially gain leverage with distributors for ABC Family by putting it in the same unit as ESPN and its spinoffs. ABC Family, which Disney acquired several years ago, had seen its ratings slip, and had trouble forging contract renewals with MSOs and direct-broadcast satellite services during the past few years.

The flip side could also be argued: that ABC Family won't be helped, because ESPN has just completed new long-term carriage deals with several MSOs, including Cox Communications, Cablevision Systems Corp. and Charter Communications Inc.

Or it might turn out ESPN's position is weakened in the future, were operators to threaten to drop ABC Family if they don't win concessions from the sports service.

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