MIPCOM 2011: Anne Sweeney Defends Digital Technology

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"Digital didn't disrupt our business, it unleashed it," said the Disney/ABC Television president. "TV is the medium around which all others revolve.”

CANNES - Disney/ABC Television president Anne Sweeney, arguably the most powerful woman in show business, says producers and distributors of small screen content should embrace, not fear, the digital future.

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In her keynote speech to attendees at international television confab MIPCOM on Wednesday, Sweeney argued that far from destroying the TV business, the digital revolution has been the driver of new growth worldwide.

"This year, people around the world will watch 140 billion more hours of television than they did last year – for a total of 4.5 trillion viewing hours," Sweeney said. "Our global audience will grow by 40 million by the end of this year, to 3.7 billion people – or roughly half of the world’s current population...Digital technology didn’t 'disrupt' our business – it transformed it. Digital didn’t weaken the power of television – it unleashed it."

Sweeney asserted that TV remains the dominant medium, pointing to a recent study by Deloitte that indicated that conversations about TV shows were the most common online topics, including more than 1 billion tweets this year alone.

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"In today’s world, TV is the medium around which all others revolve," she said, quoting the study.

Sweeney pointed to how digital changes have shaken up ABC's traditional distribution models. Popular ABC shows now often air worldwide simultaneously or within hours of the U.S. broadcast, not months as was the case just a few years ago. In the case of crime procedural Body of Proof, the series actually premiered in global markets before its U.S. launch. ABC repeated that with its new action series Missing starring Ashley Judd, which had its world premiere at MIPCOM on Monday. The show has already sold to more than 80 territories worldwide.

The biggest change facing television in the future, Sweeney said, is the increasing personalization of media as viewers choose where, when and how they watch programs.

"Today, television is the most powerful medium in the world.  Tomorrow it will also be the most personal," Sweeney said. "There is no one future for television.  It will be defined differently for everyone.”

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This personalization, Sweeney agued, is not a trend limited to young users, saying her the so-called tech generation “is the first audience demo defined by behavior, not age.” As TV gets more personalized, it will also get less passive, she added. “Television has always been something you watch, now increasingly, it is also something you do.”

Sweeney, who will be honored tonight with MIPCOM’s Personality of the Year award, didn’t make any concrete predictions about how exactly TV would look five or even two years from now. But she said she was confident the changes would be good for business.

“I remember when cable happened and everyone said broadcast was dead and then satellite happened and everyone said cable was dead and then DVDs happened and everyone said everything was over,” Sweeney said, “Nothing was over. I’m very optimistic about the future. What we’ve learned is the more devices people have to watch content on, the more television they watch. Digital is additive, not cannibalistic to our business. The key to everything remains good content. We have to keep pushing the edge with our shows, always be challenging the audience. Making them want more.”