Problem? No Prob, Says Sweeney

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At a recent cable-industry panel session, ABC Cable Networks president Anne Sweeney confessed that throughout her career, she’s welcomed taking on big risks and challenges.

“One of the hardest things for me as a leader has been getting comfortable with success,” Sweeney said during a CEO panel at the Women In Cable & Telecommunications Forum. “I was always really comfortable with a great problem, catastrophes and crises of any scale.”

That might well be a prescient remark, as Sweeney could soon be given responsibility for the ABC Television Network, which is currently the biggest “problem” at her parent company, The Walt Disney Co.

Sweeney’s already in charge of another Disney problem, ABC Family.

RETOOLING ABC

Last week, word leaked to the press that Disney is about to enact a major management restructuring of beleaguered ABC.

The scenario that’s been laid out has Disney putting ABC under Sweeney’s wing, while she continues to head the company’s cable empire.

It’s expected that ABC Entertainment chairman Lloyd Braun will exit the company, and that ABC’s president, Alex Wallau, will stay but have to make way for Sweeney.

It was also revealed last week that another hot-shot Disney cable executive — Mark Shapiro, ESPN’s executive vice president of programming and production — was being considered for a slot at the broadcast network.

At press time, there had been no definitive word about whether Sweeney would actually get the big promotion and win oversight of the Alphabet Network.

But on many levels, such a promotion would come as no surprise, given that Sweeney’s track record of success in the cable arena has made her a rising star.

“I worked with her at her Nickelodeon days,” GSN president Rich Cronin said. “She’s a great executive and she really exemplifies grace under pressure. So I think she’s the perfect person for that job at this point in Disney’s history.”

'GOOD INSTINCTS’

On the programming side, Sweeney has an eye for talent and a hands-off approach — the right skill set for any executive at a TV network, according to Oxygen chairman and CEO Geraldine Laybourne.

“A lot of managing the creative process is having good instincts about people and getting out of their way,” Laybourne said.

Disney president Bob Iger demonstrated the company’s trust in Sweeney just last fall, when he placed ABC Family, an underperforming acquisition, fully under her control. Iger’s move prompted then-ABC Family president Angela Shapiro, a company veteran, to abruptly leave.

Sweeney has been interviewing candidates for the ABC Family president’s post, including BBC America CEO Paul Lee. But a BBC America spokesman last week said that Lee is “definitely staying” put at the network.

LIFT FROM 'LIZZIE’

Sweeney was on vacation last week and couldn’t be reached for comment.

But her claim to fame has been the transformation of Disney Channel from a relatively small premium service to a widely distributed basic network that just ranked fourth in the first-quarter primetime ratings. Disney’s viewership and appeal to tweens has been propelled by hit shows like Lizzie McGuire.

Sweeney’s portfolio includes 22 international channels, as well as Disney Channel, ABC Family and two services she launched, Toon Disney and SoapNet.

She also oversees Disney’s stakes in Lifetime Entertainment Services, A&E Television Networks and E! Networks.

CABLE BATTLES

But Sweeney’s cable domain has had a history of strained relations with cable operators. Some MSOs bristled when Disney Channel was transformed to a basic channel with pricey license fees.

In recent years, ABC Cable and Disney have had acrimonious public battles over carriage with Time Warner Cable and EchoStar Communications Corp.

The dispute with Time Warner was one of the most bitter ever, resulting in the temporary drop of Disney’s ABC-owned TV stations from the MSO’s lineup.

That brouhaha turned in large part on the hot button that continues to rankle cable operators: Media giants like Disney using retransmission consent as leverage to make distributors carry their new networks. In Time Warner’s case, SoapNet was the bone of contention.

It was Laybourne who brought Sweeney to Disney in 1996 from FX, which Sweeney had launched for News Corp. chief Rupert Murdoch.

'DARN INNOVATIVE’

“She was pretty darn innovative [at FX],” Laybourne said. “She came up with the breakfast show that was then taken over to Fox.

She’s dealt with just about every kind of audience, although the lion’s share of her direct responsibilities have been with kids and families.

“I brought her onto the Lifetime board. She’s been on the A&E and History boards.

She has a very broad background. And look at her track record.”

Sweeney started her career at Nick, in its early days, as an assistant to Laybourne.

Armed with a Harvard MBA, Sweeney quickly moved up the ladder at Nick.

At the WICT panel, Sweeney recalled that during Nick’s beginning, its prospects were so shaky, “we’d be at budget presentations and always have a shutdown plan in our back pocket.”

At Nick, Sweeney was in charge of acquisitions and then oversaw its international expansion, including launching a joint-venture channel with British Sky Broadcasting plc in the United Kingdom. That’s where she caught Murdoch’s eye.

CALL FROM MURDOCH

At WICT, Sweeney said that after 12 “incredibly happy years” at Nick she “got a call from Murdoch saying, 'Will you come work for me in California and do a start-up?’ My first reaction was, 'Thanks anyway.’ ”

But she discussed it with her husband and family.

“We decided that it wasn’t a bad idea to have a new venture,” Sweeney said. “If it didn’t work out, that was fine.”

Sweeney spent three years at News Corp. launching and running FX, until joining Disney in 1996 as president of Disney Channel.

Since October 2000, she’s held the titles of president of ABC Cable and Disney Channel Worldwide.

FAMILY HEADACHES

The jury is still out as to whether Sweeney will turn ABC Family around, but she has already started to tweak its programming.

The network’s primetime ratings were up 33% in the first quarter, to a 0.8, according to an ABC Cable Networks Group analysis of Nielsen Media Research data.

But if Sweeney does in fact love challenges as much as she says, ABC could be the perfect job for her.

“Senior executives are not in those chairs because they shy away from challenges,” said David Kenin, Hallmark Channel’s executive vice president of programming. “They’re there because they embrace them. They say, 'Yeah, we can do better, I can do better.’

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