It has been a whirlwind of three months for Ben Sherwood. In December, he signed a new long-term contract with ABC News, which he had led since December 2010. Now he has been given the keys to a much bigger Disney TV kingdom, named the successor to Anne Sweeney as co-chairman, Disney Media Networks and president, Disney/ABC Television Group. “It was as quick as it seems,” Sherwood said of the hiring process. He said he learned the surprising news that Sweeney would be stepping down in February 2015 to become a TV director along with everyone else when she and Disney chairman and CEO Bob Iger made the announcement less than two weeks ago. “There was a very clear succession plan,” Sherwood said. “(Iger) had a number of conversations with people internally and reached the decision pretty quickly.” However, Sherwood acknowledges that the plan may have been hatched over the six-month period in which Iger and Sweeney had been discussing her exit before making it public.
Sherwood could be working with ABC Entertainment Group president Paul Lee, who had been negotiating a new contract, something Sherwood welcomes. “I’ve worked with Paul for the past few years, and I know he is an incredibly bright and talented guy,” Sherwood said. “He’s had share of hits and is primed for more, and I’m really excited about this development cycle.”
As for his own replacement atop ABC News, “we follow the same blueprint and have a robust succession process,” Sherwood said, noting that “we have a deep bench at ABC News.” He called fining a successor “a top priority.”
“Honored” by the new job, Sherwood said he plans to approach it as a journalist in the next 12 months when he will be learning the ropes as a co-president (and understudy) to Disney/ABC Television Group alongside Sweeney. “I have a great deal of curiosity, and, as a journalist, I’ll be asking a lot of questions, I’ll be digging deep and learning a lot.” He has ideas he wants to bring to the job overseeing a portfolio of networks but declined to share them. “I approach this with humility, and I think it would presumptuous for me to lay out particular ideas,” he said.
Sherwood is a Los Angeles native (he attended top local prep school Harvard-Westlake) and during his hiatus from news in the early 2000s he and his family moved back to Los Angeles. Upon taking the ABC News job (he started as executive producer of Good Morning America before ascending to ABC News president), he commuted for a while before settling with his family in New York. (“I have a lot of friends at United Airlines,” he quipped) Now he will do the same in the opposite direction, expecting to be based in Los Angeles full-time with his family by late summer.
Unlike Jeff Zucker — to whom Sherwood is often compared because of their similar background of Harvard-educated news producers who propelled a morning program to No. 1 in the ratings before getting a big network job — Sherwood is not the Hollywood outsider Zucker was when he was named head of NBC Entertainment. Because of his parallel career as a fiction writer, which has yielded a couple of best-selling novels, one of them, The Death And Life of Charlie St. Cloud, adapted as a movie, he said he is familiar with the Hollywood creative process and that he loves it. “At a personal level, I have long, deep friendships in the entertainment business,” he said. Some of them have come courtesy of Sherwood’s wife, veteran film executive Karen Kehela Sherwood, who has served as co-chair of Imagine Films.