Anne Sweeney Talks About ABC's International Challenges at MIPCOM (Q&A)

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Perhaps the only woman likely to outshine Missing star Ashley Judd at this year’s international television confab MIPCOM is Disney/ABC Television Group president Anne Sweeney, who will be honored Wednesday night as the event’s Personality of the Year. The 53-year-old exec is the first woman to receive the prestigious award. On the eve of the honor, Sweeney took time to talk to The Hollywood Reporter’s German Bureau Chief Scott Roxborough about the challenges facing Disney and ABC at home and abroad.

The Hollywood Reporter: Some of the biggest news at MIPCOM has been the deals Netflix is doing here. They have been very active, buying new series like Borgia and Lillyhammer are of course, they are planning their own high-end series, David Fincher’s House of Cards. How big a threat are Netflix to the traditional networks?

Anne Sweeney: They actually aren’t a threat because they don’t have first series. They have library. So if anything they would be helpful for a network because its library sales.

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THR: But they are buying and producing original, first-run series.

AS: But that’s different. Because they are talking to a pay-TV audience not a network one. We are in a very different business.

THRLost is off the air. Desperate Housewives is gone. C.S.I.,House and a lot of the other big shows that dominate primetime internationally look like they’re on their last legs. So far we haven’t seen a new generation of U.S. shows to replace them in international markets. We’ve had periods before when U.S. programming wasn’t the dominate force internationally. Is that happening again?

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AS:  No I actually think because U.S.  programming over the years, if you look at the rate of cable channels and pay-TV channels in the U.S. that are starting to really spend against quality, we have seen an uptick in competition. And I always am in favor of more competition because it raises the bar, it raises the gold standard and we saw it with Desperate Housewives and Lost on ABC, you see it in our new slate. Like Once Upon a Time, which isn’t on the air yet, it’s from two of the writers from Lost. Or Shonda Rhimes, who created Grey’s Anatomy. She’s created a show called Scandal with Kerry Washington– that will go on air next year which is fantastic moving more towards a procedural. So there’s an afterglow to these big series –the afterglow is really the talent that you come to know and work with on these series and hopefully get to know again and they are coming to you with their new projects.

THR: Many of the most hyped shows in the U.S. – Breaking Bad, Mad Men, Justified for example– aren’t primetime fare internationally. What separates them from shows, from ABC for example, which go on to conquer the world?

AS: I think the difference is who your initial platform is – who you are originally producing for. When you are producing for ABC you are producing for a big tent network. So when you are thinking about your story lines and characters, you are thinking about broad appeal. When you are producing for a niche interest – you are producing for a different audience. Those are great shows and they speak so well of the networks that care them but that’s the difference – broad based vs. niche.

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THR: Do you need a show to be an international hit for it to be a success for you?

AS: I think you can have both. Dancing with the Stars is a great format for us. It’s a format we license from the BBC so that can’t travel for us but we consider it a great success. Desperate Housewives on the other hand, a huge success for us internationally. Missing has actually sold to 80 territories before it’s even gone on the air. So we do look for global success because we are a global company.

THR: You are the first woman to ever receive MIPCOM’s Personality of the Year award. How does it feel?

AS: It’s a wonderful honor. I’ve been coming to this marketplace for a long time. And I’m one of many women that have worked in this marketplace and have helped create this great business. More than anything, though, I think this award speaks to the strength of my team. And the last 15 years with Disney we’ve had this unofficial mantra which is: create what’s next. That’s really the secret of this company. My feelings about tomorrow night is a bit of nostalgia mixed in with a tremendous amount of pride for the people I work with and it will be a chance to express that publicly.

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