ABC News President Ben Sherwood: ‘I’m Going to Go All Out’

10:31 AM PST 12/04/2010 by Marisa Guthrie

Former ABC News producer on his return: ‘The company I’m coming back to is very different than the one I left.’

Ben Sherwood has been out of the rough-and-tumble network news game for the past four years.  

And while he has had a long and distinguished TV news career — as a producer at ABC newsmagazine Primetime Live, NBC’s Nightly News With Tom Brokaw and most recently as executive producer of Good Morning America from 2004-06 – the network news landscape has arguably become much rougher since he left.

“The company that I’m coming back to is very different from the one I left four years ago,” he told The Hollywood Reporter, adding that the 25% staff purge undertaken this year was “obviously a very painful experience.”

“But I think that ABC News is ready for a future that requires faster adaptability, more nimbleness, more speed and more flexibility.”

The staff cuts at ABC News coincided with anchor changes at the network’s flagship programs — World News, This Week and GMA. And while late-night news program Nightline has lately dominated its competition on NBC and CBS, the other programs have lost ground to broadcast leader NBC since those anchor transitions.

Sherwood said his mission is to “raise the competitive metabolism” of the news division, though he would not go into detail about his plans. Certainly, the obstacles to profitability are not insignificant for news divisions like ABC and CBS that are without cable networks to amortize costs and generate multiple revenue streams, and operational cost-amortizing agreements have been a hot topic in TV news circles. CBS News and CNN have flirted with a partnership for years.

But while ABC News has worked with Bloomberg in the past on stories, discussions about a more extensive partnership have not yielded a deal. Sherwood said he was not privy to any previous discussions between ABC News and Bloomberg, but he did not rule out a future partnership.

“I have not sat at those tables and had those conversations yet,” he said. “But I’m sure that ABC is ready to get serious if it makes good sense for the ABC News brand. As the new reality shifts, ABC News has to be ready to create deeper partnerships with organizations that will make it stronger and better.”

Sherwood’s appointment to succeed outgoing ABC News president David Westin came as a surprise to many inside ABC News. Although it was well known that he was among the candidates who had met with Disney-ABC Television Group president Anne Sweeney, his post-ABC News reinvention as a writer and entrepreneur tempered his viability in the minds of many at ABC News.

For the past four years, Sherwood has been living in Los Angeles with his wife, Karen Kehela-Sherwood and their two young sons. (Kehela-Sherwood is co-chair of Brian Grazer’s Imagine Films.) Sherwood will start his new job Monday. But for now, his wife and kids will stay in Los Angeles with plans to relocate to New York after the school year ends.

Sherwood has written two best-selling novels, with The Life and Death of Charlie St. Cloud getting the big-screen treatment this year in an adaptation starring Zac Efron. An earlier novel, The Man Who Ate the 747, also is being developed as a film and Broadway musical.

Since he left ABC News in 2006, Sherwood has spent much of his time writing. He launched a web site, TheSurvivorsClub.org, in 2009. A resource for people surviving through adversity, he also adapted the premise for a nonfiction book of the same name. (Sherwood has personal experience with adversity. In 1992, he was in a car in Sarajevo with ABC News colleague David Kaplan when Kaplan was shot and killed by a sniper. In 1993, he lost his father suddenly, prompting a sabbatical from the TV news business.)

And while he admits he’ll miss the writer’s life, he realizes that leading ABC News at a particularly challenging time will demand his full attention.

“It’s an amazing job that will require every ounce of creativity that I have and every ounce of ability that I have. And I’m going to go all out,” he said.
Not that he won’t miss his old life: “I would by lying if I didn’t say that the writer’s life is a wonderful life. But it is also an agonizing life, especially when you come to blank page with my skill set. I’m sure there will be days where I will think about the solitude of the writing room and I will want to run there. But I’m signed up for this and I can’t wait.”

Sherwood received positive reviews from many inside ABC News. “A great guy, a grown-up [and] well-respected,” a veteran ABC News producer said.

And many at ABC News are simply relieved that the next news division president comes from the ranks of TV news producers rather than the operationally austere corporate suites.

“The worry was we would get a bean counter,” one ABC News staffer said. “At least we got a creative guy. This is good news.”

“He’s got a lot of confidence,” noted Andrew Heyward, former president of CBS News. “He had the confidence to leave the business and now it’s taking confidence to come back. He’s very bright and eclectic. It would be disappointing to see him get trapped in some of the patterns that network news finds itself in these days. But he’s very inventive.”

Referring to Sherwood’s 2000 novel, The Man Who Ate the 747, Heyward added: “Someone who wrote a novel about a guy who ate an airplane is a good choice for a network news president.”

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