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Dana Walden Goes It Alone: Disney TV Strategy, Netflix “Growing Pains” and Why “Volume Is the Enemy”

Dana Walden opens up about her conversations with Bob Iger, Disney's TV strategy, Netflix's growing pains, flying solo (without longtime business partner Gary Newman) and her efforts to keep Channing Dungey at ABC.

Dana Walden found out that the studio she oversees was being sold to Disney the same way most of us did: via a Nov. 6, 2017, report on CNBC.

The 26-year Fox veteran, who in a matter of weeks (or maybe months) will segue from chairman of Fox TV Group to chairman of Disney TV Studios and ABC Entertainment, was sitting in a regularly scheduled staff meeting when the news alert came through. Initially, Walden didn’t buy it. “We all thought, ‘No way, that can’t be true,'” she says now. After all, not long before, Rupert Murdoch had tried to scoop up Time Warner. “Of course it all made sense after the fact, but I always assumed he’d be a buyer.”

A year later, once the $71 billion deal wound its way through the regulatory process, Disney announced that the 54-year-old married mother of two, who’d led her Fox assets to 143 Emmy wins and established her reputation as a creative’s executive, would be joining the newly merged company in a senior leadership role. Walden’s purview will roughly double. She’ll oversee ABC, cable’s Freeform, the ABC stations and a collection of what are now four studio labels — 20th Century Fox TV, Fox 21 TV Studios, ABC Studios and ABC Signature Studios — with more than 80 shows combined. The catch: She’ll be doing it without her partner of nearly 20 years, Gary Newman, by her side. The week of Nov. 5 marked the end of their farewell tour at Fox, where former AMC boss Charlie Collier has since taken the helm. She and Newman left the primetime lineup in decent shape; it’s currently No. 2 among the all-important 18-to-49 demographic and the only broadcast net up year-over-year.

“Dana’s a ridiculously fast study with fantastic instincts,” says Newman, who’s now weighing his next act. “The challenge for her in [this next phase] will be delegating. Her instincts are to do things herself because she’s so good at it, but if she can rely on the people underneath her, and I think she can, she’s going to knock it out of the park over there.”

In her first wide-ranging conversation since being named a Disney employee, THR‘s Women in Entertainment Executive of the Year talked about priorities, rivals and the recent exit of ABC boss Channing Dungey.

What have your conversations with Disney CEO Bob Iger entailed?

The day the deal was announced, Bob reached out and said: “I’m really hoping this presents us with an opportunity to work together. I’m a fan. I really love the shows that you’ve overseen. I love the culture at your company that helped create this content, and I hope we get a chance to talk.” Then Comcast came into play, and that delayed a lot of the conversations. But I’ve been doing this for a really long time; I know what I need to be successful, and one of the things I need is the right boss, Peter [Rice].

What else do you need?

I need resources, I need to be able to hire the right team and I need to have authority.

There was a time when going with Ryan Murphy to Netflix was your rumored plan. How seriously did you consider it?

I really thought long and hard about going and working with him. Ultimately, I didn’t feel like it was the right point to make the choice. Our timing wasn’t aligned. There will come a point in my career where I’m genuinely interested in working on fewer projects and rolling up my sleeves. For the time being, what I’ve enjoyed about the past four years and the 20 before that has been managing people and trying to put together teams and working on a very broad portfolio of shows. My heart was still in that phase of my career. But were I to have made a decision to pivot, I would have done it with no one other than Ryan.

At what point did you know you’d be embarking on this next phase without a partner?

Gary and I have had an amazing relationship, and he’s pretty much my brother, and we were totally transparent with each other every step of the way throughout the past year. As conversations took place, it became clear that Bob’s vision was to create a company with distribution on one side and content on the other. A lot of what Gary spent his time on in our partnership was looking at the business side of our business and looking into the future, and this wasn’t a job that involved any real distribution side — no international, none of the things that I think Gary ultimately found really engaging and challenging. He’s going to get a great job and do something really meaningful. But I’ll miss him. We’ve been joined at the hip. I spend more time with Gary than I do with [my husband] Matt.

Any apprehension about doing this solo?

The partnership has enabled us to have someone to turn to during tough times and great times, and that’s going to change. In some ways that will change in a way that will challenge me, and I think that’s good. It’s good to grow and learn. It will force me to focus on areas I would’ve previously passed off to Gary.

ABC Entertainment president Channing Dungey has announced she’s stepping down. What efforts did you make to keep her?

I had two meetings with her — a dinner and then coffee about a week later. I made it very clear I hoped she would stay. She was candid, very professional and thoughtful. She loves her team and Disney but was struggling with the idea of entering into a new deal doing the same job. She talked a lot about wanting to be closer to the production of shows. I asked that whatever her decision, she please make it quickly, given the time of year in terms of the development cycle. While her decision was not the one for which I had hoped, it was not unexpected. It was a blessing that there was an extremely talented leader [Karey Burke] inside the Disney family who was excited to step into this role.

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You famously canceled American Idol at Fox and then voiced your displeasure when ABC quickly revived it. I assume you appreciate the irony of overseeing the franchise again?

I do. (Laughs.) Look, we made a decision that was based on Fox marketing the farewell season. It would’ve been incredibly hypocritical of us and dismissive of our audience to bring it back. I thought they brought it back too soon. That said, it performed really well for them, and I thought they did a very good version of the show. So I don’t feel any deep angst around answering that question. I know I’m going to be asked it over and over again.

If you were presented with the Roseanne situation, how would you have handled it?

It was not my decision to make, so how I would have handled the situation is not particularly relevant. I will say that I admired ABC’s quick and decisive actions. I believe their process was the right one.

For the past year, you’ve been in a holding pattern at Fox. How has it impacted your output?

Initially I spent a lot of time with the network team trying to see the advantages of being an independent network in an environment where all the other networks are vertically integrated. Very quickly we saw an opportunity, and it was a pitch that resonated with independent studios, and at this point in the development process, the network has far more development with third-party suppliers than it has over the past five or six years. On the studio side, unfortunately, the timing was not great for a couple of our deals. Most importantly, Ryan [Murphy’s] deal.

You believe there would have been a different outcome had it fallen a few months later?

I think a lot about what would have happened if his deal had come up six months earlier or a year later. Because his deal coming up at exactly that moment made us vulnerable and created a great opportunity for him and for Netflix. So bad timing on the Ryan front, but life is long. And then we’ve had many other partners who’ve been very patient.

Going forward, do your Disney-owned studios intend to compete with the nine-figure sums Netflix is offering producers?

We’re going to be participating in the market as it evolves, whatever the circumstances are. What’s under-reported in these deals is that the streaming platforms, and Netflix in particular, are making these huge swings, but along with that they are also buying out a traditional backend. So they’re monetizing for creators what in our old model was backend participation. And it’s still a hit-driven business. How you define a hit is going to change, but Netflix, in their deals, if they have one show from each of those people that becomes a legitimate hit, the deals will make sense for them and they won’t find themselves in the situation that we were in before, where a huge hit also means huge reward for a participant. But I remember when we first started making giant overall deals back around 1999, 2000, and everyone thought the deals were crazy. When Peter Roth stepped up for Chuck Lorre, people were saying, “Wow, how are you going to compete?” And then he got Two and a Half Men and then Big Bang and Mom, and now that deal looks smart and reasonable. I think you have to be flexible and keep the marketplace in mind but stay in your own lane and remember that all these companies have financial resources. The money is all the same color.


The market will dictate where we have to step up at various points, but ultimately the experience is something that we can have a dramatic impact on. We have a really good understanding of how to support creative partners here, and that’s different from what those partners are going to get at a tech company, even if they have Hollywood talent working inside. It’s a different culture. Here, we understand our role is to be an obstacle mover, the people who help them figure out how to do the best possible version of their ideas, and we put them at the right place. Putting This Is Us on NBC enabled This Is Us to be its very best version of Dan Fogelman’s show, and we know that because it’s the number one show on broadcast. That scenario is never going to exist in a streaming platform. All your shows are going to the same place, and they are only going to market a certain number of them. I admire their business, but you see the stories coming out now about culture. Culture is important.

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So, none of Netflix’s “keeper tests” here, I assume?

No … (Laughs.) I think there are clear growing pains that are being experienced in merging that tech culture. It’s very different from what we do. It’s easy to say, “We have an algorithm.” An algorithm will not pick great shows or great creators. I envy the amount of information they have about people who watch their shows, but there is not a tech executive up north who can develop a better show than my team can. They just can’t. And I think we’re starting to see leaks. When you grow at that [speed,] volume is a little bit the enemy. The year of the writers strike we had seven pilots: Glee, Modern Family, The Cleveland Show, two other shows that got picked up, one that went a few seasons, and then two failed pilots. When do you ever have that ratio or that number of hits? The resources of the people in your company are important, and when you stretch them too thin, it’s really hard to do good work.

What lessons did you learn at Fox that you’ll apply to ABC?

There are a lot of people who want to watch broadcast TV. I think what we did very smartly at Fox over the past year and in our development the year before is, we really thought a lot in this fragmented world about who is available to us, who wants to watch broadcast. What does that audience look like? OK, we know who they are, we know Thursday Night Football is coming in, how do we create shows that are excellent for that audience. Going into ABC, that’s the playbook. Making sure we have the best possible content for ABC.

Any concerns about shifting from what has been an edgier brand at 20th to the squeakier clean Disney brand?

Clearly Bob admires what we’ve accomplished here. And clearly we have a more robust adult television business but, really, I think we’re both fundamentally in the same business, which is high quality content. I don’t find the brands to be so dissimilar in that regard. 

Would The Simpsons, for instance, work on ABC?

It’s not going to because it’s licensed to [Fox] but I don’t see any reason why The Simpsons couldn’t be on ABC. I mean Shonda’s line up of programming has been very adult in nature. It’s not accurate to paint that whole company creatively with the same brush. It’s a diverse slate and it’s going to increase in its diversity when all of our content is included. 

Any advice for Charlie Collier at Fox?

My advice is that there’s an amazing leadership team in place there, help them, make them feel great, make them want to stay.

As day one as a Disney employee looms, what’s keeping you up at night?

I really want to find a way to take this opportunity to empower leaders under me to run their own businesses. We’ve been here so long and it’s hard at a certain point to change the dynamic of a relationship and, as a consequence of that, our leaders at the studio have not been given enough of an opportunity to lead their own businesses and to genuinely occupy an ownership role of a team, of decisions, of strategy. And I want to be the kind of boss who empowers people — I want to be a boss like the bosses I’ve had.

This story first appeared in the 2018 Women in Entertainment Power 100 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.