Disney Names Ben Sherwood as Anne Sweeney's Successor

Ben Sherwood and Anne Sweeney
Ben Sherwood and Anne Sweeney
 Getty Images

ABC News president Ben Sherwood has been named Anne Sweeney's successor as co-chairman of Disney Media Networks and president of Disney/ABC Television Group.

He'll take over the role on Feb. 1, 2015.

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Sweeney first revealed her decision to leave Disney and pursue a career in TV directing in a recent Hollywood Reporter cover story.

Sherwood quickly emerged as an especially strong contender due to his successful stewardship of the news division that has included a wide-ranging deal with Yahoo and new cable network Fusion, an English-language joint venture with leading Spanish broadcaster Univision. But the accomplishment that brought Sherwood the most distinction was his aggressive pursuit of ending the Today show's 16-year morning news winning streak. Since ABC's Good Morning America overtook Today nearly two years ago, the news division has seen its ad revenue increase by more than $100 million, according to estimates provided by Kantar Media.  

Sherwood, who is married to former Imagine Entertainment executive Karen Kehela Sherwood, 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.

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Sherwood travels frequently to Burbank; he was raised in Los Angeles, where his mother still lives. He is an aggressive networker who has forged a close relationship with Disney CEO Bob Iger, who is known to email the ABC News president with comments during breaking news situations.

In making the announcement on Monday, Iger cited Sherwood's execution of the Yahoo and Fusion deals as well as the GMA victory. "Ben is one of those unique executives who combines rich creative experience with great business acumen," said Iger.

Sweeney, who deflected specific questions about Sherwood's candidacy during THR's interview, added: "It was Ben's intense passion and incredible insight that made us confident he'd do great things as president of ABC News. Over the years, he has moved from success to success and helped create a more vibrant, collaborative and powerful news division that embraces innovation and risk-taking."

Last year, Sweeney's divisions generated $11.9 billion in revenue and $2.6 billion in profit. Under her measured watch, ABC became the first network to offer shows online (in 2005), and her division played a big role in Disney's stock hitting an all-time high of $83.65 on March 7.

Sherwood said he was "honored and humbled" that Iger "has entrusted me with this great responsibility and amazing opportunity," adding, "I'm also deeply grateful to Anne, who has built and led a powerhouse division over the last 10 years. I am looking forward to her counsel and wisdom during this transition period. I must also thank the remarkable people of ABC News who inspire me every day with their creativity, dedication and spirit. I will keep their commitment to excellence and their fierce competitiveness firmly in mind as I move forward to meet this exciting new challenge."

James Goldston, currently the senior vp of ABC News, is seen as Sherwood's likely successor. Goldston is credited with reimagining Nightline as a multianchor program and reconfiguring GMA into an ensemble format, changes that helped both shows achieve ratings dominance. 

Nomura analyst Anthony DiClemente says Sherwood's promotion comes amid a successful tenure at ABC News.

"Ben has done an excellent job in the roles he has been given at Disney throughout his career, and as such, is certainly well equipped for the job," he tells THR.

Asked about Sherwood's main challenges and possible priorities, DiClemente says: "You see the mention of Fusion/digital in the press release; but 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?"

DiClemente doubts Disney's stock will be affected much by the news, pointing out, "Disney investors are likely more focused on [theme] parks, ESPN and the studio than ABC right now."

MoffettNathanson analyst Michael Nathanson agrees that the news won't have much of an impact on Disney's stock but praises the choice of Sherwood.

"While I don’t think this news is a critical driver of Disney’s stock, Ben has done a great job at ABC News and is a smart choice to follow Anne's footsteps," Nathanson says. "He is a programmer in one of the most competitive and evolving content verticals -- news -- and has a strong track record of success."

Disney shares fell 1 percent on Monday.

Georg Szalai contributed to this report.

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