Ben Sherwood Reveals How He Scored Disney's Top TV Job, Talks Paul Lee, ABC News Successor (Q&A)
When announcing Ben Sherwood's new role at the Walt Disney Co., CEO Bob Iger called him "one of those unique executives who combines rich creative experience with great business acumen." The elevation from ABC News president to co-chairman of Disney Media Networks and president of Disney/ABC Television Group, a job he will take over from Anne Sweeney in February 2015, is a huge promotion for the career newsman. Sherwood, 50, spoke with The Hollywood Reporter on Monday about his immediate plans for ABC and ABC News, what he learned from his college friend Jeff Zucker and which shows he'd poach from other networks.
Give us the backstory. How long did you know this was happening? When did you get the call from Iger?
It happened very quickly. A couple weeks ago we all got together -- Anne Sweeney called us together for her announcement, which caught us all by surprise. Let's just say most of us got all our news on what was going on by reading The Hollywood Reporter. Bob talked to a number of internal candidates. I spoke to him a couple weeks ago. My family, we went on vacation last week. Turns out we happened to be in Orlando at Walt Disney World for the week. This all came together very quickly between Space Mountain and Dumbo the Flying Elephant. That's how it came together.
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Logistically, what are your first steps going to be? Will you be shadowing Anne?
I have two immediate priorities. One: a smooth transition, and that means that I will be dividing my time between Burbank and New York. I'll immediately dive in with Anne, working closely with her on immediate upcoming calendar priorities: the pilot process, the May upfronts, a budget process, a long-range planning process -- I will be involved and working with Anne on all of the above. And then the other immediate priority is to name my successor at ABC News, something that will happen with Anne and Bob's obvious oversight. I will be going back and forth. My wife and two young boys will move back to California in the summer.
Iger said getting someone in place during pilot season was the rationale for moving quickly. Does that mean you're going to be approving ABC's pilots?
The thing that I'm going to be doing — the thing that any good journalist would do — is that I will be observing closely. I'll be asking a lot of questions. I'll be listening. I'll be learning and I will participate as appropriate. Obviously, I'm coming from a different part of the company — from news — and so it would be presumptuous that I would be doing anything but observing, listening and learning and contributing where I can. Anne is the chairman and president of this organization, so she's in charge. Paul Lee is very much in charge of entertainment. That process is pretty clear.
We're hearing James Goldston is getting your job at ABC News. True?
We've got a great bench at ABC News. I've worked closely with James in the past few years and hold him in very high regard. He's the architect of the many great things that have happened at ABC in the past few years. But that's not for today.
Iger and Sweeney both said they support Paul Lee at ABC. Is that a view that you share?
I've worked with Paul for the last few years. I know that he wants the network to be successful. He's a very bright, very talented exec who's had his share of hits. I know he's primed for more in the future, and I'm excited about this upcoming development cycle and seeing what they've got. I can say to you, I just saw him earlier this morning, and I'm planning to sit down with him very soon to discuss how we can build on the successes of Disney/ABC and make it even stronger. That's where I'm at on that.
Analysts are starting to weigh in on your hiring. They are positive but some are asking, "Can this guy do anything but news?" What's your response?
It makes me smile because the answer is that, in my 30 years in the news business, I have taken a number of detours and have immersed myself fully in the creative process — writing three novels, one under a pseudonym, two under my own name. I love the creative process and storytelling process. It's in my family; I'm married to the love of my life, Karen Kehela Sherwood, a very well-regarded exec in Hollywood. She ran the film division of Imagine Entertainment for many years. Our circle of friends are in every part of the creative process in Hollywood, TV and film. Part of what's so exciting about the role is the opportunity to work alongside the very creative people at Disney/ABC and the people in the creative community in a broader sense -- I can't wait to get into that. I had the unique experience as an author of seeing one of my books turned into a motion picture; that was quite an experience and a lot of fun to see. Marc Platt was the producer at Universal of [2010's] Charlie St. Cloud movie they made with Zac Efron. I was kept in the loop on that process. I understand the analysts, but I have been involved and I'm very curious and interested in this other world.
GMA is going through a heated contract negotiation with some of its anchors. Is ABC prepared to let Josh Elliott go if a new deal can't be worked out?
We love Josh. We hope Josh is going to stay for a very long time. We don't comment further on our discussions.
What is your managerial philosophy with regard to creative talent?
Best ideas win. My job is to help create an environment where great ideas flourish, great storytellers want to work -- and we've worked hard in our news division to bring about a creative renaissance in the last few years.
In five years, what will we notice about a Ben Sherwood Disney/ABC that's not there now?
How about five hours? I started two seconds ago, so let's just say, five hours from now, he flew the red eye back east and met face-to-face with the people of ABC News. But I would say five years from now, my hope is we have built on the great strengths of Disney/ABC, the strengths that Anne Sweeney put in place over the last decade, and we've brought the organization to new creative heights. We're building new brands that reach around the world, that embrace technology, to reach consumers where they are with great storytelling. I'm reminded of a conversation I had in the past couple weeks with Iger where he and I were reflecting on some of those predicting the sky is falling on traditional media. And Iger's reflection in terms of content, creativity, distribution and consumption: His view is that the sky is rising on media, and I think that is our anthem for the next five years: The sky is rising.
The key will be to adapt to the changing consumer behavior. The key will be to adapt to the disruption, and to do some of those things that we've done at ABC News over the last few years: adapting on the digital side in terms of a distribution process for Yahoo, adapting in terms of the changing demographics of the country by launching a partnership with Univision to reach the fastest-growing demographic in the country, Hispanic millennials. I wrote a nonfiction book a few years ago where I went around the world and studied the world's greatest survivors, people who had been flattened out by life, and the project was to understand from people who've faced unbelievable adversity, who survives and who thrives and why.
The last successful news guy to take over an entertainment division was Jeff Zucker. Anything you learned from his tenure at NBCUniversal?
Jeff has been a friend since college [at Harvard]. We worked on the student newspaper together. I learned a lot about television news from Jeff. We worked at NBC together -- I was at Nightly News when he ran the Today show. And I think that one of the things about Jeff when he ran the Today show, he trusted his gut. He focused incredibly hard on the storytelling. He was passionate and fearless. Those are qualities that I observed up close. He came up with "Where in the World is Matt Lauer," he came up with the wedding on the plaza. He was just brimming with ideas.
OK, what are your favorite ABC shows?
I'm excited about Resurrection, which I've been watching. Love Scandal. Let's see … Modern Family is, of course, the staple at our home.
And shows on other networks you wish you had?
Big fan of early Homeland. Big fan, believe or not, of very, very early Prison Break. I was a big fan early on of Dexter. Big fan early on of The Good Wife. I'm deeply into House of Cards.
You realize that your opinions on shows now matter to a lot of people in Hollywood.
Which is why, when I just rattled those off, I thought, "I'm going to pay for that."