Disney/ABC TV's Ben Sherwood on a 'Star Wars' Series, "Mistakes" in Michael Strahan's 'Live' Exit and Bob Iger's Future
"We made some mistakes, we fixed them quickly and we moved on," says the television group president as he tackles 'GMA's' viewership decline, reveals new input on Oscar telecast and makes his pick for host.
It's Wednesday, Sept. 7, and Michael Strahan has just wrapped day two of his full-time gig at Good Morning America — four months after a messy exit from the ABC daytime show Live. Ben Sherwood, who since 2014 has been running the Disney/ABC broadcast and entertainment networks, remarks that he "can feel the energy … feel the competitive fire."
After a three-year stint as president of ABC News, Sherwood, 52, still is very much invested in the network's flagship morning program. Perhaps his most significant accomplishment while on the job was GMA's vanquishing of Today's 852-week winning streak in 2012. Of course, Today last year regained the lead in the critical 25-to-54 demographic. And so Sherwood, who takes his task as morale booster seriously, has made this one-day trip to New York in part to rally the troops. He'll also stop in at the weekly primetime ad sales meeting, hand out the monthly MVP award (something he makes a point of doing personally) and make a jaunt across the East River to Vice headquarters in Brooklyn for a check-in on nascent cable network Viceland. (Disney has invested $400 million in Vice Media.)
From his office in Burbank, Sherwood oversees more than 7,000 employees across ABC, ABC Studios, ABC-owned television stations, Disney Channels Worldwide (a portfolio of 116 kid-driven entertainment channels or channel feeds available in 163 countries in 34 languages), tween-targeted cable network Freeform and the company's equity interests in A+E Networks and Hulu. He has recast his cabinet, tapping Channing Dungey as president of ABC Entertainment, charged with the task of arresting the network's primetime ratings slide; it finished the 2015-16 season down 14 percent in the crucial 18-to-49 demo.
He also has elevated Patrick Moran to president of the studio, rebranded ABC Family into Freeform and hammered out a new long-term deal with the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences to keep the Oscars on ABC through 2028 (and give the network creative input — a hard-fought concession, even in the wake of an eight-year low for the 2016 Oscarcast). Disney's media networks business, which includes ESPN, posted a $7.8 billion profit last year, up 6 percent year-over-year.
A prodigious reader (recent titles include: Black Flags, Joby Warrick's Pulitzer Prize-winning account of the rise of ISIS; The Boys in the Boat, which chronicles the 1936 U.S. Olympic crew team; and How to Clone a Mammoth, about de-extinction technology), Sherwood has written three novels including the best-selling 2004 book The Death and Life of Charlie St. Cloud, which was made into a Zac Efron movie. Sherwood is married to film and TV producer Karen Kehela Sherwood, and they have two sons, ages 6 and 11.
He talked to The Hollywood Reporter about who he'd like to see host the Oscars (hint, it's the same guy hosting ABC's Emmy show), how ABC will arrest its ratings slide and what keeps him up at night.
ABC primetime had some challenges last season; stalwarts including Modern Family and Scandal saw some erosion. What is the strategy for turning things around?
Ask Channing. Period. (Laughs.) She inherited a number of shows from her predecessor [Paul Lee, who left in February,] and so she picked cards from the deck she was given. I'm excited about Designated Survivor, which is the most talked about and most in demand with advertisers. We are very encouraged by Speechless, the Minnie Driver comedy. You'll see in the schedule that Channing has put together that she is looking to pick big, popular programs that are appealing to both women and to men. She is very focused on improving our performance at 10 p.m., which is important both in primetime but also to our owned stations and affiliates. She's such a magnet for creative people and looking to make some bigger, bolder bets.
How is your relationship with Channing different than your relationship with Paul?
I wish Paul only the best, but I'm focused on the future. Channing is collaborative, she is great with talent, she is open-minded and transparent, she is doing a terrific job, and she's just getting started. I'll leave it at that.
ABC has had tremendous success with female-targeted serialized shows, but less with procedurals. You pushed for the latter when you came into this job. So a narrative that you wanted ABC to look more like CBS has taken hold. How do you feel about that?
Don't believe everything you read or hear. First, let's respect the incredible success at CBS over the past decade, and let's respect the great shows they have put on that have fans across the United States and around the world. [But] we're not trying to copy or imitate anyone. We have our own plan and strategy. And it involves a healthy diet of all kinds of shows that appeal to the broadest possible audience — dramas, comedies, procedural dramas, serial dramas. You name it, we're interested if it's a great story.
Having been snubbed for a 2014 Academy Award nomination for animated feature, The Lego Movie directors built their own Oscar. And they made sure Sherwood got one.
Is there a plan for a live-action Star Wars series?
The live-action Star Wars plan rests in the hands of [Walt Disney Studios chairman] Alan Horn, [Lucasfilm president] Kathy Kennedy and the great folks at Lucasfilm. Somewhere we hope in a galaxy not too far away there will be a television show that will air on one of our networks. But I wouldn't get anybody's hopes up too high. They have a lot of movies to make between now and then. We are deep into a very productive relationship with Lucasfilm making [Disney XD's] Star Wars Rebels. And we are in ongoing conversations with them on what is the next Star Wars animated show.
You're delivering a keynote at MIPCOM in October. What is the main point you want to convey to the international market?
The speech is a work in progress but we are planning to talk about the power of great storytelling, the impact of great storytelling across boarders. One of our themes will be that in a moment when across the world people talk about building walls we at Disney/ABC see the chance to take stories across borders and to bring people together around the best storytelling.
ABC has earned accolades for diversity and for putting on a slate that reflects America. Some of those hits, including Black-ish and How to Get Away With Murder, haven't performed as well as others internationally. Do you need to turn those shows into global hits?
We know that those shows resonate in some markets and not all markets. Our goal isn't to try to fix those shows so they can sell elsewhere. Our goal is to make great shows, and we believe that an international audience will follow. One of our goals is to think more holistically about how a show will premiere in the United States and then will find audiences around the world. But the most important criteria is: Is it a great show?
Did you watch the Olympics? And as a media executive did you take anything away from the erosion of the linear TV audience versus London four years ago?
I watched the Olympics from a remote vacation location on an international channel where I was able to celebrate the victory of the Greek athlete who won the women's 25 meter pistol competition. That was the extent of our Olympics viewing. And I can tell you that celebrations were great and the coverage was extensive. (Laughs.) As a very competitive person, I try to put myself into a state of suspended animation during the 17 days of the Olympics. But when we emerged from the Olympics and we all had a chance to look and see what happened with the ratings, it was yet another reminder of rapidly shifting consumer behavior, big challenges for programmers to keep those big audiences and the risks to all of us in these big, expensive, live events.
What new influence does ABC have on the Oscar telecast?
We're proud of our 40-year marriage with the Academy. In this town, that kind of longevity and success in a partnership is very rare. And our renewal sets us up nicely for the future. As part of a long-term renewal, we worked hard with the Academy to make sure that we had a little bit more creative input on how the show looks and feels, a little bit more flexibility on how we sell advertising and integrate advertising into the show, and a little bit more flexibility on how we distribute the program depending upon shifting business models and distribution. Win-win for ABC and the Academy and a great relationship extended.
ABC News staffers presented Sherwood with his phone from the GMA control room, spray-painted gold, an homage to Roone Arledge's notorious control-room phone.
But the Academy still gets final say?
The Oscars are a wholly owned and presented event by the Academy with more creative input now from ABC.
How do you think the Oscarcast can be more relevant to younger viewers?
The ingredients of a successful Oscar broadcast are clear — a great host, great producers, great movies nominated that are popular and accessible to audiences around the world, and a length and a pace and production values that are entertaining, fast-paced and surprising.
Has that been the formula the show has used?
Everyone goes in with the hope of doing all of the above. And it's not easy. Sometimes you don't get the host you want. Sometimes you can't get the producers you want. Sometimes the movie choices lead to nominations that are less well-known or popular with viewers, and sometimes the show runs very, very long. In live television, there are lots of moving parts, and getting them all in sync is difficult.
Sherwood has had this magic die box since he was an 11-year-old performing at his friends' birthday parties. The illusion tube in which gold fish magically appear is a current prop, used during a performance at his son's 6th birthday party. "The show went so well, that I was asked by one of his friends to do his birthday party. So I am working on a little side business, don't know how scalable it is, with the same sales pitch I used a mere 41 years ago: fantastic tricks for all occasions."
Why hasn't Jimmy Kimmel been asked to host the Oscars? Too edgy?
The Academy invites the host, and so you have to ask the Academy about their choices. Obviously we would love for Jimmy Kimmel to host the show, and we champion Jimmy every year. The Academy ultimately is responsible for making the choice, with our input. And our hope is that one day we will see Jimmy Kimmel up there doing the Oscars.
And he is hosting the Emmys …
It's going to be a really good show. Jimmy is working incredibly hard on it. He asked to borrow my tux. I'm not sure if that's a good sign or a bad sign. He also asked if he could put a swimming pool onstage so that the winners could dive in after winning. And everyone took it seriously. Turns out that the weight load was too great, so he compromised and asked for a Slip'N Slide. I believe that is being deliberated.
An art project from Sherwood's eldest son, whom he says "is extremely loyal to the Disney/ABC Television Group."
A few months have passed since Strahan's exit from Live, which caused Kelly Ripa to boycott her own show. Have you thought about how that could have been handled differently?
I have most definitely thought about it, and I think that enough has been said about it. (Laughs.) We made some mistakes, we fixed them quickly and we moved on. I was on the set of Live recently: The show is in great shape, Kelly is in a great place, the hunt for a new co-host is underway, the excitement is building, and I believe the future of that show is bright.
What did you learn from that experience?
I certainly learned that more communication is better.
GMA is down in the 25-to-54 demographic, which has enabled Today to regain the lead among viewers important to advertisers. How concerned are you, and what is the strategy to reverse that?
When GMA broke Today's winning streak on April 17, 2012, we knew it was going to be a battle every week with NBC and everybody else. We have been delighted that for four years Good Morning America has been the most popular morning show in total viewers and for almost that entire time the No. 1 show in the key demo. That we are back in a battle with them should come as no surprise. They've got a formidable team, are highly motivated and have a strong network behind them. Our strategy has always been the same: Play like you're 500,000 viewers behind, fight furiously for every booking, put on the most informative, surprising and entertaining program. That strategy worked for us before and it will work for us again as we bring the fight to them this fall.
A welcome gift from the Emmy-winning artists at Disney TV Animation.
How does it make you feel when people say GMA has strayed too far from a news program, which is a polite way of saying it has become infotainment?
I don't hear that very much. First, the show I watch, George Stephanopoulos does the single most important interview of the entire campaign with Donald Trump in which the world learns [Trump's] views about the [Gold Star] Khan family; arguably there will be a before-that interview and after-that interview in terms of the campaign and its trajectory. Second, I would ask whether you were watching Robin Roberts interviewing the mother who shielded her kid during the Dallas sniper attacks. Third, I would ask whether you watched Amy Robach in Paris or Orlando after those unthinkable terror attacks. Fourth, I'd ask if you were watching Ginger Zee on Labor Day weekend, chasing Hurricane [Hermine] across Florida. Fifth, I would ask if you watched Lara Spencer's interview with Ivanka Trump; [it was] substantive and made news. And sixth, I would ask if you think about the totality of what Good Morning America is. It's hard news, it's lifestyle, it's entertainment. It's always a balance.
Do you agree with CBS' Leslie Moonves, who said that Trump may not be good for America, but he's good for TV?
I don't mean to evade the question, but I left ABC News only two years ago and still feel bound by the standards and practices of a news division not to comment on politicians, politics or political issues. I don't go to political events. I don't contribute to political campaigns.
Do you vote?
Definitely. I can't wait to vote.
Disney has an 18 percent stake in Vice. CNN's Jeff Zucker dismissed it as a "native advertising shop." What's your view?
Vice is speaking powerfully to a young audience in exciting and provocative ways. And I'm excited by some of the shows they have on Viceland. I think F— That's Delicious or Gaycation or Flophouse or Weediquette or Cyberwar or Action Bronson Watches Ancient Aliens demonstrate an incredible curiosity about the world. And they are doing something that is connecting with young and difficult-to-reach audiences. And attention must be paid. It's real.
What are the odds of Disney buying Vice outright?
That is way outside my job description and above my pay grade.
You played a pivotal role in launching Fusion. Disney/ABC recently sold its stake to Univision. What happened there?
We had a great idea and high hopes, but over time it became pretty clear the venture would succeed if one party ran the whole show. I'm rooting for them. I believe in the mission they are trying to pursue, and I think Univision running the whole thing is going to improve its chances of success.
A replica of Admiral Horatio Nelson's HMS Victory. "He did something called the Nelson Touch; instead of attacking in parallel, he attacked perpendicular. And he destroyed the Spanish-French fleet. That's part of our approach," says Sherwood. "You cannot fight the fight in the traditional way." The bike seat was a gift from Kimmel after the host sent executives portable bikes as holiday gifts.
What keeps you up at night?
I'm kept up by a 6-year-old with a very active imagination who is interested in talking about epic battles and villains and heroes.
Sounds like the TV industry.
I'm hoping for some inspiration for Disney Channel or Freeform or for ABC in these conversations in the middle of the night.
How often do you talk to Bob Iger?
We are in touch every day. He is actively involved in every part of his business, whether it's television or parks or consumer products. And we are fortunate he is so involved.
There obviously have been questions about Iger's successor. Any insight into that?
Put me firmly in the camp of those in denial and hoping that he stays forever.
Would you want that job if asked?
(Laughs.) Nice try. I hope he stays forever and I'm just getting started in a job I love and that is, as I like to joke, a full-body workout every single day.
A version of this story first appeared in the Sept. 23 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.