MIPCOM: Disney's Anne Sweeney Touts Value of Linear TV Channels

Anne Sweeney

"If not now, when?" she said about her plans to pursue directing and vowed to leave the Disney TV unit in "spectacular shape"

Outgoing Disney/ABC top executive Anne Sweeney will leave the company in “spectacular shape,” with the unit of the entertainment giant focusing on digital and technology that is driving growth, she said during her keynote interview at MIPCOM.

Disney CEO Bob Iger has three big goals for the company going forward under Sweeney successor Ben Sherwood, the departing co-chair of Disney Media Networks and president of the Disney/ABC Television Group said. “The first is creative excellence, the second is international growth, and the third is using technology to make everything that we do better.”

She has learned through focus groups that children are more attached to their devices than to television. For them, “it’s not the size of the screen, it’s about the experience.” Early Disney deals with iTunes and Netflix, as well as the company's own online streaming and decision to push the release date of its own Watch app up a year, established the company as a tech leader in television early on, she added.

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Still, linear channels have value, argued Sweeney. “The key is remaining relevant," she said. "They are still a great business for our company and for many companies, but what we realized early on is that they can’t be the only business that we should be in with our content.” However, as viewers move to viewing on devices, the windowing model will have to be reevaluated, she said.

Big, live events are still drawing viewers in record numbers, because people prefer to watch them on television screens. Sweeney cited the Super Bowl and the Oscars, which drew record ratings this year, as two examples how event television is continuing to grow.

Some shows, including Shonda RimesScandal and How to Get Away With Murder, have also become event television, largely because of their Twitter connection, she said. They have become almost DVR-proof as a "live event" that cannot be interrupted.

“Many people in the early days of Twitter saw it as a marketing tool. It isn’t. It is a community tool, and you have to make sure you understand your viewers, and that is what Shonda and [Scandal star] Kerry Washington understood so well, that people wanted to be there in the moment with them,” Sweeney said.

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The Twitter connection between viewers and content creators has propelled those shows to their ratings success. ABC Family’s Pretty Little Liars has also managed social media well and has higher Twitter traffic than Scandal, she said.

The former theater major reiterated that it was time for her to leave Disney to pursue her dream of directing. “It’s something that I’ve always felt very drawn to," Sweeney said. "So what I am going to do as of January 31 of next year is take the plunge and apply to directing workshops. If not now, when?”