While attention had been focused on who would replace Anne Sweeney atop Disney/ABC’s TV Group, observers ponder what the choice would say about Walt Disney Co. CEO Bob Iger plans for the future of the company. Thomas Staggs and Jay Rasulo both have already done stints as CFO and head of the Disney parks division and are considered leading contenders to succeed Iger in the top post when he departs in 2016. If one of them is chosen to oversee Disney’s non-sports TV assets, the appointment would anoint that executive as an Iger heir apparent as the job would give him entertainment experience, a background both Iger and his predecessor Michael Eisner had before taking on the CEO job. For whoever within the Disney Co. takes the job (and Iger had indicated he doesn’t intend to look outside the company), it would be a learning curve. The only executive with experience in both TV programming and managing global portfolio, A+E Networks CEO Nancy Dubuc, is under a long-term contract at a very successful company, which Disney doesn’t own outright but is a 50-50 partner with Hearst, making a transition to Disney-ABC problematic (though not impossible).
The other possibility that has been gaining momentum — of splitting Sweeney’s portfolio into two — is even more intriguing. ABC’s morning golden boy, News President Ben Sherwood, is being groomed for a Jeff Zucker-type career trajectory from morning TV to a top network job, with another executive, like Rebecca Campbell, president of the ABC Stations Group, possibly overseeing the rest of the portfolio. Such a separation possibility has industry types buzzing about potential scenarios. One includes the spinoff of the station group. ABC had been considering a sale of the 8 owned and operated TV stations on-and off- for years, most recently last fall. The stations may finally be separated from the rest of Disney’s TV properties that they have very little synergy with. Such a move would open up a host of opportunities for ABC. Not tied to broadcast stations, the network could even transition to cable, joining Disney’s cable portfolio that includes sports giant ESPN and younger-skewing ABC Family and Disney Channel, though such a possibility would devaluate the stations whose retransmission consent for carrying the ABC network is a key revenue stream. Whatever the outcome is, selecting Sweeney’s replacement could go well beyond a personnel change.