In April 2004, ABC was wrapping its third consecutive season in last place among adults 18-49. Then-rising star Disney cable executive Anne Sweeney was brought in, greatly expanding her portfolio to include the struggling broadcast network and its sister studio along with her oversight of Disney’s cable properties. She’s had successes — most notably the gutsy 2010 move to install Ben Sherwood, then considered a polarizing figure, as head of ABC News, as he went on to revitalize Good Morning America and take the morning ratings lead away from incumbent Today. (Sherwood’s morning success has him already tipped for a Jeff Zucker-type career trajectory to a big network job at ABC.)
But there has been little change in primetime. There was an initial momentum brought in by three shows developed by the dismissed ABC executives when Sweeney and her lieutenant Steve McPherson stepped in – Lost, Grey’s Anatomy and Desperate Housewives, which launched during the 2004-05 season, followed by Dancing With The Stars in June 2005. Since then, there has been a breakout success in Modern Family, several slow builders in hits Scandal, Shark Tank and Castle and a few other solid players. But in the end, Sweeney will leave ABC where she found it, wrapping its third consecutive season in last place among the broadcast networks.
Outside of ABC primetime, Sweeney’s division has done well, generating $11.9 billion in revenue and $2.6 billion in profit last year. Sweeney started her 18-year tenure at Disney as head of the Disney Channel, and that’s a unit that has done solid business under her leadership, most recently successfully introducing Disney Junior. ABC Family, too, has established itself as an entertainment network for millennials. Under Sweeney, Disney/ABC has been at the forefront of embracing new technologies, from signing the first digital deals for a broadcast network in 2005 to the hailed-as-groundbreaking pact with Dish just last week.
But there also have been missteps. While Sherwood has proved to be a great hire, the $40 million pact with Katie Couric — which Sweeney personally shepherded — misfired, with Couric recently exiting her ABC News contract and her pricey daytime talk show wrapping in May. Like she did with Couric, who fulfilled her talk show’s initial two-year contract, Sweeney has a history of sticking with her decisions and her executive appointments. Save for the short tenure of Carolina Lightcap at Disney Channels Worldwide, there have been very few major changes that did not result from an executive switching jobs on her watch (or leaving the country, as was the case with ABC Family topper Michael Riley). During her 10-year tenure overseeing ABC, Sweeney made one major executive change there, replacing primetime chief McPherson with Paul Lee in 2010 following Lee’s successful stint running ABC Family for her. (Indicating the friction between the two, McPherson reacted to today’s news with a harsh comment about Sweeney on his Facebook page.)
When Sweeney was named co-chair, Disney Media Networks, and president, Disney/ABC Television Group in 2004, she was a rare woman to hold such a high corporate position in television. Since then, several more have broken the glass ceiling, including Bonnie Hammer, who leads NBCUniversal’s entertainment networks, and Nancy Dubuc, who runs Disney co-owned A+E Networks and is among the names mentioned as a possible Sweeney successor, being part of the extended Disney family.
Despite the rise of female executives, we’re still a ways off from a woman running a media conglomerate. Insiders note the fact that Sweeney was not looking likely to succeed Disney topper Bob Iger when he departs in 2016 played a part in her decision to go for a career change, though she insists she never wanted that top job. New-media companies such as Yahoo and Facebook have been ahead of the curve, entrusting the wheel to female executives; it’s time for old media to follow. Others are left to carry the torch now as Sweeney is leaving the TV executive grind and segueing to another arena dominated by men: TV directing.