Help Wanted: Walt Disney Co. seeks executive with experience in both broadcast and cable television. Must embrace new technologies, display keen programming instincts and be deft at corporate politics. Internal candidates welcome.
The impending departure of Anne Sweeney from her role as president of the Disney/ABC Television Group and co-chair of Disney Media Networks will leave a large hole at the media giant.
Besides overseeing the ABC broadcast network and its local stations, Sweeney is responsible for key cable properties including the Disney Channel and ABC Family both in the U.S. and abroad.
Although Sweeney is not scheduled to leave until January of next year, Walt Disney Co. Chairman and Chief Executive Robert Iger has said he would like a successor in place by this spring.
Disney has a distinct corporate culture that has often proved difficult for outsiders to navigate, and Iger has indicated that he would prefer that an insider fill the role.
Already speculation is centering on a handful of senior executives. The name mentioned most often both inside and outside Disney is Ben Sherwood, the president of ABC News and a Sweeney protege.
Sherwood has led an impressive turnaround at ABC News since taking it over in 2010. "Good Morning America" has become the most-watched morning show, and "World News Tonight" has also made ratings gains.
Although Sherwood does not have traditional entertainment experience on his resume, Disney has never shied from moving successful executives into areas where they haven't demonstrated their chops.
Indeed, Iger rose from the ranks of entertainment to run ABC in the 1990s, and later Disney's international operations, before becoming CEO of the entire company.
Sherwood has been criticized by some news purists. Andrew Tyndall, a TV news analyst and consultant, said Sherwood's approach often favors softer stories and is "jeopardizing ABC's reputation as a serious journalism operation."
An ABC News spokesman declined to comment on Tyndall's assertions, instead noting that the network has won several prestigious awards for its work, including Harvard's Goldsmith Award that honors investigative journalism.
Also thought to be on the short list is Gary Marsh, president and chief creative officer of Disney Channels Worldwide. Marsh has been at the company more than two decades and has played a key role in keeping Disney Channel programming fresh for fickle kids and teens.
A fast-rising executive who also has programming experience is Nancy Dubuc. She was recently promoted to chief executive of A&E Networks — the parent company of cable channels A&E, History and Lifetime — co-owned by Disney and Hearst Corp.
Like Sweeney, Dubuc has made her name as a cable executive. And just as Sweeney is credited with re-energizing the Disney Channel and turning it into a powerhouse, Dubuc took History Channel from a network best known for World War II documentaries to a top-rated outlet.
Another Disney executive considered worthy of attention is Ben Pyne, who oversees distribution for the company's channels. Although Pyne is short on creative experience, he is the gatekeeper for Disney's programming in the rapidly changing media landscape digital front — a key position at the company.
If Iger were to go outside, there is no shortage of strong managers who have experience in network television.
Nancy Tellem, a former high-ranking CBS executive, has been developing a slate of shows for Microsoft and its Xbox. Former Fox and Paramount executive Gail Berman, who recently left a production company she founded with former ABC executive Lloyd Braun, is mulling her next step. Berman has said she is not interested in a job at ABC.
There is also Tony Vinciquerra, a capable executive with both broadcast and cable experience who was chief executive of Fox's TV network unit for several years.
With Iger's own tenure at Disney ending in just over two years — and no successor named — the person he chooses may indicate his thoughts on long-term strategies for the unit, particularly ABC and its TV stations.
Although ABC and its stations are the most visible of Disney's TV operation, they are also the most challenged. Viewers and advertisers are migrating to cable and the Internet, and some analysts think ABC is not vital to Disney in the long run.
One even wants Disney to unload it.
"Hopefully it means Disney will pursue a more active sale of ABC, or at the very least its TV station group, before the broadcast television business really starts to collapse," BTIG analyst Rich Greenfield said.
Meg James contributed to this report.Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun