5 Big Challenges Ben Sherwood Faces in Disney's Top TV Job (Analysis)

"Modern Family's" ratings slide is one of several issues Sherwood (center) will tackle.
"Modern Family's" ratings slide is one of several issues Sherwood (center) will tackle.
 

This story first appeared in the April 4 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine.

ABC News President Ben Sherwood had emerged as a top candidate to succeed Anne Sweeney even before Sweeney made her surprise March 11 reveal to THR that she will exit her post as president of Disney/ABC Television Group early next year. Nonetheless, Disney CEO Robert Iger's confirmation March 24 that Sherwood, a 30-year news veteran, indeed had secured the company's top TV job caught ABC News staffers by surprise. "No one knew," says one. The week before the announcement, Sherwood was on vacation with his family -- at Disney World in Orlando, of course -- and negotiated the deal "between Space Mountain and Dumbo the Flying Elephant," he says. While Sherwood, 50, won't officially take over the division that includes 10,000 employees and nearly $12 billion in annual revenue until February, there are several immediate challenges for Sherwood in reinforcing the company's TV assets.

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1. REBUILD ABC PRIMETIME

ABC is languishing in fourth place among the broadcast big four in the key 18-to-49 demographic for the third consecutive season. And this year the network has seen a further erosion of hits including Modern Family, Revenge and Once Upon a Time. (Only Scandal has improved year-over-year.) There is an acknowledgment that the network known for female-skewing dramas must broaden its audience base. But it lost a bid for the NFL's eight-game Thursday-night package (which went to CBS). Like Iger and Sweeney, Sherwood expresses support for ABC entertainment chairman Paul Lee, who is negotiating a new contract. Still, Sherwood (who counts such dark dramas as Netflix's House of Cards and Showtime's Dexter among his favorites) will need to oversee a few swift moves to prove that his news-programming prowess extends to entertainment. "When I hear Ben Sherwood's name, I think 'news man,' 'news exec,' so the test will be, can he grow beyond his expertise in news?" asks Nomura analyst Anthony DiClemente.

2. MAINTAIN NEWS MOMENTUM (AND TALENT)

After naming a successor to lead ABC News (senior vp James Goldston is said to be the front-runner), Sherwood's immediate priority will be the health of ABC News. A deal with Yahoo! has put the news division in a good position as consumers increasingly find news and video on mobile devices. But English-language cable network Fusion, a joint venture with Univision that targets acculturated Hispanics, needs to grow beyond its 20 million subscribers to have a significant impact. More pressing, Sherwood and his business affairs team are navigating heated talent contract talks. It has been a priority to keep the top-rated Good Morning America team together in the wake of weather correspondent Sam Champion's defection to Weather Channel. Sources tell THR that Lara Spencer is expected to finalize a new deal soon. But Josh Elliott, with less than a month left on his contract, is said to be demanding a raise from about $800,000 to about $8 million and is mulling an offer from NBC Sports. Sherwood only would say, "We hope Josh is going to stay for a very long time." A less immediate issue is brewing at World News, where weekend anchor David Muir has emerged as the top contender to replace Diane Sawyer, 68, when she steps down. Barbara Walters also is set to retire in May.

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3. FORGE HOLLYWOOD RELATIONSHIPS

A critical component of Sherwood's new job will be to establish lines into the creative community. While his executive experience has been confined to news, he has a conduit to Hollywood: his wife and former Imagine Entertainment exec Karen Kehela Sherwood. "Our circle of friends are in every part of the creative process," says Sherwood, a Los Angeles native who has authored three books, one of which, Charlie St. Cloud, was adapted by Universal into a 2010 film. "Ben has already shown us that what you need to do is be in business with talented individuals and then trust them," notes UTA managing director Jay Sures. "He did that in the news division, and I would expect him to use that philosophy in the entertainment division."

4. INNOVATE IN THE KIDS SPACE

The littlest viewers often are the earliest adapters. As tablets and smartphones have converged with apps, VOD and SVOD, kids TV channels have been driven to innovate. Disney-ABC's suite of channels includes Disney Channel, preschool channel Disney Junior and boys channel Disney XD. The company launched WATCH apps for all three services in June 2012 and in January rolled out a WATCH ABC Family app. Of course, the network has competition from Nickelodeon, which after recent ratings stumbles has posted more than a year of gains among kids 2-to-11. But Disney's WATCH apps have been downloaded more than 20 million times.

5. MANAGE TV'S PILOT SEASON

At ABC News, Sherwood's mantra has been to broaden the lens of storytelling. He has nurtured longform documentary series (extinct at nearly every other news division) while stepping beyond traditional TV news with specials including Nik Wallenda's 2012 high-wire walk over Niagara Falls. He soon will be sitting through marathon pilot screenings. He tells THR he will be "observing closely" and participating only "where appropriate." Can he bring that expansive eye to help select a winning fall schedule?

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