THR's Women in Entertainment 2011: Power 100
The real question everyone's asking about Anne Sweeney isn't how she manages to pull off business miracles -- like stanching the blood at ABC by hiring former ABC Family chief Paul Lee as its entertainment president or seeing operating income in her empire grow a whopping 20 percent compared with fiscal 2010 -- it's where does she go next?
THR's most powerful woman in entertainment for a second consecutive year has been the subject of speculation about whether she'll succeed her boss, Walt Disney Co. chairman and CEO Robert Iger, when he steps down in 2015. If she does (media analysts favor CFO Jay Rasulo and Thomas Staggs, chairman of Parks and Resorts, but aren't ruling her out), it would mark a crack in the glass ceiling for women who've climbed high in media companies but never ascended to the top.
Sweeney, 54, will never say if that's her goal. "Ultimately, it's the board's decision to make," she notes with the skilled diplomacy that is her trademark. "I don't think many people are speculating. But really, no one's opinion counts more than the board's."
You can bet the board will be influenced by the success of Sweeney's portfolio, which includes a broadcast network, seven cable networks, eight local TV stations, Hyperion Publishing and Radio Disney, not to mention the company's 42.5 percent equity stake in A+E Networks and nearly 10,000 employees.
It is also sure to be influenced by 2011, during which revenue at Disney Media Networks is up 9 percent to $18.7 billion, leaving that segment of the Walt Disney Co. valued at $58.9 billion alone, according to Wunderlich Securities analyst Matthew Harrigan.
Add to this the fact that Sweeney, a married mother of two, has spearheaded a string of headline-making deals and innovations, and the sum is impressive. During the past year, she has pulled off a partnership between ABC News and Yahoo ("ABC News traffic soared from minute one," she says); Canada's ABC Spark, the Disney Television Group's first international millennial channel; ABC On Demand, the first on-demand entertainment service in the U.K., Germany and Portugal, with more markets planned for 2012; and a multiyear pact to bring Katie Couric to ABC in 2012 via a nationally syndicated talk show that has already been sold to more than 80 percent of U.S. TV households.
There are still question marks. Can her protege Lee truly turn around the flagging ABC? And can her handpicked lieutenant, Ben Sherwood, resuscitate ABC News, where insiders say Sweeney is far more involved than she lets on? (Again, ratings increases across the board bode well.)
But her success is all the more striking for an executive who never flaunts her power, who took the time to guide an inner-city teenager as part of THR's Women in Entertainment Mentorship Program and whose own child struggles with autism. Sweeney, who once aspired to be a teacher, is teaching Hollywood how to combine a private life with a professional one -- and how a business can thrive in a desperate economy. "We have weathered tremendous storms as a country and as a company," she says. "The reason we have come out stronger is because we encouraged people to be inventive and not paralyzed by fear."
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