Anne Sweeney Replacement: Disney's Bob Iger Surveys the Candidates
Anne Sweeney's bombshell announcement on March 12 that she would be stepping down from her job as head of Disney-ABC Television Group has set off intense jockeying among the company's heirs apparent to her $12 billion portfolio, which includes ABC, the company's suite of kids and tween-targeted channels, as well as Disney's stakes in Huluand A+E Networks.
Disney CEO Bob Iger told The Hollywood Reporter last week that he has been thinking “very specifically” about the succession plan “for the last few months,” adding that his goal is "to do it fast.”
“Anne and I both feel that getting someone in the job while pilot season is in full swing [through May], so that they can at least have some direct experience in that process, would be helpful,” he said.
That plan is now moving full speed ahead, say sources. In the past week, as Sweeney traveled to New York to share details of her departure with ABC's Diane Sawyer, Barbara Walters and Robin Roberts, Iger met with all of Sweeney's direct reports. They include ABC Entertainment chief Paul Lee, Disney Channels Worldwide president Gary Marsh, global distribution head Ben Pyne, ABC News president Ben Sherwood, ad sales president Geri Wang, digital media executive vp Albert Cheng and Rebecca Campbell, president, ABC Owned Television Stations Group.
It's unclear if Iger also has reached out to A+E Networks CEO Nancy Dubuc, but insiders say she is also considered a contender. However, Dubuc, in the top job at A+E for just seven months, obviously has not had time to groom a successor. And multiple sources suggest that executives at Hearst Corporation and Disney-ABC, which share equal ownership of A+E, would be loath to make a change in the A+E executive suite at a time when the company is surging financially. And multiple other candidates are said to be on the succession short list, including Sherwood and Pyne.
Sherwood is believed to be an especially strong contender. He relocated to New York in 2010 to take the top job at ABC News, his third stint at the news division after penning a couple novels, one of which was turned into the 2010 film Charlie St. Cloud, starring Zac Efron. He is seen as a star at the company for engineering Good Morning America's ascension to first place in the morning news wars. The toppling of the Today show's unprecedented 16-year winning streak came with bragging rights and, more importantly, an ad revenue windfall (about $100 million last year alone, according to Kantar Media), as the morning shows are critical revenue generators that keep their news divisions afloat. Sherwood travels frequently to Burbank; he was raised in Los Angeles, where his mother still lives. And he has forged a close relationship with Iger, who is known to email the ABC News president with comments during breaking news situations. Sherwood also is an entrepreneurial thinker, having forged deals with Yahoo and Univision during his stint at ABC News. But some inside Disney-ABC point out that he lacks weighty executive experience -- seen as an important asset for the top job. Nevertheless, earlier this year, he signed a new long-term deal with ABC and many insiders expect him to take on, at the very least, an expanded portfolio at Disney-ABC.
Pyne has been at the company since 2000, when he joined as senior vp, affiliate sales and marketing for Disney-ABC Cable Networks. His current vast portfolio includes international distribution and sales of entertainment and news content, including features, TV series, kids programming and direct-to-video. Pyne also oversees domestic distribution of Disney/ABC television content.
Campbell, a Sweeney acolyte, also is being mentioned as a possible successor, though her portfolio has been limited to the company's owned stations. Based in Burbank, Campbell is a well-liked executive who has quickly risen at the company since she was promoted from general manager of WABC in New York in 2010. Prior to that, she ran the ABC station in Philadelphia.
One possible scenario put forth by multiple sources would be to split the job between two executives, perhaps Sherwood and Pyne or Sherwood and Campbell, though others discount this, citing a hesitancy on the part of Iger to create a bifurcated structure that would add to his direct-report count.
Sweeney has been among the industry's top female executives for more than a decade; and the significance of her gender is not lost on Iger. He told THR he cares “deeply” about diversity.
"As is the case with all these jobs, we have to put the best person in the job as possible,” he said. “I love diversifying in terms of the senior talent at the company. I don’t know whether I’m going to be able to accomplish that here. I can’t say for sure that I will or won’t.”
Sweeney's shocking announcement that she'll leave one of the most powerful posts in the industry to attempt to become a TV director has generated another kind of jockeying in Hollywood. A Disney source tells THR that several of the top talent agencies have reached out to represent her in her new career path.