Disney's Anne Sweeney Discusses Changing Role of ABC, Hulu, YouTube, Mobile Video Growth

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At a London event, the co-chair of Disney Media Networks also discusses Nancy Tellem's move to Microsoft and calls for continued digital innovation in the TV industry.

LONDON -- Disney sees the biggest growth opportunity for video consumption in the rise of mobile devices such as tablets and smartphones, Anne Sweeney said here Friday.

In a conference appearance, she discussed the roles the ABC network, Hulu and YouTube play today. And she told her audience that Disney's executive team is approaching the continued digital changes in the TV industry like Winnie the Pooh character Piglet approaches life.

Speaking at a Royal Television Society conference entitled "When Worlds Collide: Beyond the Digital Looking Glass," the co-chair of Disney Media Networks and president of the Disney/ABC Television Group said that mobile devices, such as iPads, other tablets and smartphones, are "clearly the biggest opportunity" for growth in video consumption. After all, iPad users watch 60 percent more video than PC users, with iPhone users watching nearly 40 percent more, she added.

Sweeney said apps are simple and therefore the preferred way for people to watch video on new devices. She said 80 percent of video is viewed that way. 

She also said the ABC player app for Apple devices has been downloaded 6.5 million times and drawn more than 135 million video views. Those figures make it one of the most popular apps, even though it is in the shadow of the successful and popular BBC iPlayer Sweeney added.

What does the digital change means for ABC? "It recharacterizes the whole idea of a television network," Sweeney said. "We talk about ourselves as a content engine for the Walt Disney Co." The studio does so, too, she said. "The value of the television network is partly tradition, serving as a navigation device and as a brand," she added. "Research shows that people do know and understand ABC as a brand," like Disney.

Asked what role she sees for YouTube, Sweeney said, "I find it incredibly useful." For example, Jimmy Kimmel uses it all the time as "an incredibly useful tool in building his audience."

Responding to a question about why Disney bought a stake in Hulu a few years ago, she said the ABC audience was skewing female, while "Hulu was getting a broader, more diverse audience." Said Sweeney, "We saw Hulu as an opportunity to broaden our audience for ABC content."

Asked about Nancy Tellem's move from CBS to Microsoft to head up the XBox's content strategy, she said she didn't know about her plans. "It could be that they will create a different kind of content for the Xbox," Sweeney said. She said she likes it when companies get into the content space because it allows everyone to learn about consumers.

Sweeney also said Friday that "change can be scary," but Disney has continued to aggressively push content to new digital platforms and develop new ways to access programming.

For example, the ABC TV on Demand service in the U.K. and Nordic countries, among others, will be rolled out to more markets in the future, Sweeney said. ‪The branded service brings top U.S. TV series from ABC Studios‬ to international markets. And she said her team has 20 patents in various stages of a development process, but she didn't provide further details.

The executive said a scene from the popular Pooh stories illustrates Disney's approach to the digital age. Pooh says the first thing he thinks of in the morning is "what's for breakfast." In comparison, his friend Piglet says: "I wonder what exciting is going to happen today." Disney follows the Piglet approach, Sweeney said.

She also referenced famous words from Shakespeare's The Tempest recited by Kenneth Branagh during the Opening Ceremony of the London Summer Olympics: "Be not afeared. The isle is full of noises." Combining those lines with Piglet's comment, Sweeney said the TV industry should take the following approach to the digital age: "Even if we are afeared, we should be looking for exciting stuff to happen."

She urged the industry to focus on innovation, citing four key areas of innovation: storytelling, distribution, research and failure. Without innovation and the decision to embrace digital changes, "our business will go the way of the Betamax and the cassette tape," Sweeney said.

Sweeney mentioned ABC hit show Once Upon a Time as an example for how new digital technology can enhance storytelling. In the distribution area, getting content onto mobile devices and developing new apps are key, she said. And the success of Phineas and Ferb illustrates the need for failure at times, she said. The show was successfully developed because it was original and came to the Disney Channel after a failure with too many quickly developed shows that lacked original ideas, she said. Sweeney added that before Phineas, Disney's animated pilot efforts had become "a machine of mediocrity."

The exec cited Disney's 2005 deal with Apple's iTunes as a key example of Disney leading the industry to make content available in new ways that was watched with concern at first but is now widely accepted. "There was no way to win in the 21st century using a 20th century business model," she said in explaining that decision. "It was a way to change everything."

Sweeney said the experience of seeing her daughter go off to college five years ago helped her to learn not to be afraid of change. Her daughter did not want the small portable TV Sweeney had wanted for college. "I don't need a TV," her daughter told her, pointing to content on ABC.com, Hulu and others. Sweeney said she replied: "Television has been very good to you. You're going to have a television if I have to nail it to your wall -- and then I did."

Sweeney opened with some remarks that had her audience in stitches. She mentioned that Britain has brought the world "some of most enduring stories, such as Alice in Wonderland, 101 Dalmatians and Peter Pan. "And those are just the stories Disney made into movies," she quipped. 

In comparison, Sweeney said, "The U.S. gave you the Kardashians and Jersey Shore. You're welcome."

She also referenced the London Olympics, offering "a heartfelt thanks" to the British capital and its people "for giving the world such a stellar event."

Email: Georg.Szalai@thr.com

Twitter: @georgszalai