Anne Sweeney: Channel Changer

ABC/Disney's Anne Sweeney has embraced evolution in her industry, knowing that if she doesn’t drive progress, someone else will beat her to the future.
May 20, 2014

(Editor's Note: Since this article's newsstand publication, Anne Sweeney has decided to leave her post at Disney to pursue a career in directing.)

Anne Sweeney remembers the day she was in her Burbank, Calif., office sitting across from a colleague who was lecturing her about the iPad’s small screen and why it wasn’t fit for a good television-watching experience.

It was then that Sweeney took her iPad and placed it on her glass tabletop, which is supported by a 1940s Emerson vintage TV lying on its back with the screen facing up. The iPad was no smaller than the TV screen.

Sweeney knows that stories, not screen sizes, interest viewers. The savvy co-chair of Disney Media Networks and president of Disney/ABC Television spends every day racing toward the future but never forgets to honor and remember the past.

“I look at [the Emerson] every day, and I’m reminded that television moves so fast, evolves so quickly,” Sweeney, 56, says as she casts her eyes over the rich wood, the cloth-covered speakers and the distinctive screen of the set she purchased on eBay.

Sweeney works for one of the largest and most recognized conglomerates in the world, presiding over about 9,000 employees at ABC and its cable siblings, as well as Hyperion publishing and Radio Disney, overseeing 107 channels in 166 countries. She’s a regular on power lists from Forbes to The Hollywood Reporter, which in 2013 named her the No. 1 most powerful woman in entertainment—an honor she’s held for four consecutive years. Yet the daughter of a New York teacher and a school principal, who once thought she might follow in her parents’ footsteps (and who did earn a master’s in education from Harvard), still maintains an earthy quality as evidenced by the scribbled measurements on her doorjamb, indicating the ascending height of staff members’ children.

Things do change.

Sweeney charged into the digital age when she opened the door to Apple in 2005. The iTunes Store began selling TV shows viewable on the iPod for $1.99 apiece, with five shows from ABC/Disney that October. “It’s strange to think that this was even before the iPad and iPhone,” Sweeney says. She remembers Steve Jobs flying down with the beta version of his app. The sound was pristine and the picture quality was good.

A year later viewers could catch up with their shows through the ad-supported ABC.com. “At the time we were only thinking about streaming video, not bringing live television or all the things that we can do now,” Sweeney says. “I’m surrounded by change every day.”

“I found that I cared less about the size of the screen and more about watching something I liked that I otherwise wouldn’t get a chance to see,” Sweeney says. “At that moment you realize you are the audience. You are not the businessperson. You aren’t in television. You are a person thinking, I’m traveling a lot; I’m spending time in cabs, trains, subways and planes and how nice would it be to take my TV shows with me.

But she was stunned by the first response that greeted her when she returned to the office after the initial deal was announced.

“My phone was exploding with the angriest people saying, ‘What have you done? You’ve ruined the industry,’ ” Sweeney says. “I was like, ‘Whoa! Whoa! Wait until you see it....’ I’m in service to the consumer, and my job is to put those stories in their hands.”

That overarching philosophy led to 2013’s leap into WATCH ABC, the app that is live-streaming TV shows and video on demand for your computers, smartphones and tablets. The application appears to play into the current fascination with “second screen” viewing, where TV watchers pingpong between their televisions and other devices to engage in social network interactions. But it’s more than that.

“We have to get out of the habit of calling an iPhone or iPad a second screen, as if it needs to be parallel or complementary,” Sweeney says. “That small screen does everything from home security to entertainment, and how you use it will be determined by what you are doing at the time.”

The greatest kick for Sweeney came when an ad buyer shared a story after the company unveiled WATCH ABC in a May presentation. The buyer discovered Scandal was going to be on and she couldn’t reach her hotel in time to watch it. She suddenly realized she could utilize her new phone app during the cab drive.

“That moment of yes!—that’s exactly why we did it,” Sweeney says. “You are never without your ABC. You are never without your Disney Channel or your ABC Family.”

Most people would have been without it until spring 2014 if not for Sweeney’s push to move up the launch date, as she felt a tremendous amount of urgency because she sensed the audience was moving faster than the company. When she asked her tech team if the launch could be expedited by an entire year, the response was cautious. The acceleration was complex, involving the clearing of rights and technology in development but not yet created.

“What I love about our team is that no one said no. They said let us think about it,” Sweeney says. “Two weeks later, people assembled around our table and they committed to it.”

It was a close call. A matter of hours before the presentation deadline, everything was finally cleared.

“It was a great lesson in serving big ideas because everyone was behind it,” Sweeney says. “If we had half the group saying all the reasons why not, we could never have done it. But everyone delivered on the highest possible level. I hate to say magical because we are Disney, but it was one of those magical moments.”

Taking such risks is what Sweeney is all about as a leader.

“I don’t have a lot of fear, for good and bad,” she says. “We have a culture at Disney that is very, very fast and very forward-thinking.” While most people think of Disney in terms of light, animated fare, what is forgotten is that Walt Disney himself was a forward thinker who embraced the change that comes with technology. In the early days, he wowed Disneyland visitors with animatronics, and famously mixed live action and animation in classics like Mary Poppins.

“Here is a company 90 years old that continues to create the technology for the kind of stories we want to tell,” Sweeney says.

Her office sits at the top of the ABC building across the street from the Disney Studios. In the same parking lot is an animation studio dominated by a giant replica of the wizard’s hat from Fantasia. She works out of a space that’s efficient and streamlined, with three Emmys placed on a low credenza. Her large desk has a window view of her empire, and her retro sofa sports a kitschy Lucasfilm pillow, a nod to the sale of George Lucas’s company to Disney for $4 billion in October 2012.

To ABC’s star TV series creator Shonda Rhimes (Grey's Anatomy, Scandal), it’s no surprise that Sweeney takes a hand in perfecting every detail, right down to her office décor. All of Sweeney’s duties aside, she takes the time to check in with Rhimes on a regular basis.

“She’s involved in a lovely way that makes me feel creatively supported. She is open for conversations and discourse,” Rhimes says. “What I like most about her is that she’s funny, spontaneous, smart and always in control…. She’s very supportive of creative, bold ideas, which is rare in this business.”

Sweeney’s team is encouraged to experiment as long as it remains focused on the company’s business goals.

“While some of my counterparts may fear rocking the boat of big revenue streams, Anne believes that you have to take the right risks,” says Albert Cheng, executive vice president and chief product officer, digital media, Disney/ABC Television Group. “Team-building is critical, and our ability to execute is built on the foundation she created.” Cheng says to expect to see Sweeney’s influence on the digital entertainment space for years to come, as her team continues working on game-changing projects.

“Media will change even more in the next five years,” Cheng says. “Anne sets the table for the future… and is able to realize the impossible.”

Sweeney’s approach to decision-making is to rely on research—not only data-driven, but empirical. In 2013, she traveled all over the world, including spending six weeks in China. She went into schools and engaged with children, asking what their lives are like, what they read, their favorite stories and what they want to be when they grow up. As she asked questions, the young students, dressed in their white uniforms and red scarves, would hold one of their elbows and put their hands in the air. When they were asked if they used iPads, the room exploded with outstretched arms.

Children using technology are getting younger and younger. Toddlers still working through potty training can perfect a finger swipe to scroll through a hand-held device.

“Kids are expressive with their hands,” Sweeney says. “Moms are handing iPhones to the back seat for children to use…. Kids come in contact with tech earlier, some as early as 12 months are using it. It’s just like another toy to them.”

Sweeney knows the importance of that audience from when she first started in television in the early 1980s at the kid-friendly network Nickelodeon. She’s always had an affinity for children and children’s programming, and can still sing the jingle from Breadtime Stories, a beloved after-school program sponsored by a New York baking company that featured cartoon rabbit Freddie Freihofer:

Freddie, we’re ready, we’re waiting for you.… We love your breads, your cakes and your pies,” sings the petite president, who has lost none of her youthful exuberance.

Wife to a Los Angeles lawyer and the mother of two grown children, Sweeney was raised in a time when women were being told they could bring home the bacon and fry it up in a pan.

“I came from that generation that told women you can do anything. What they didn’t tell us is that you don’t have to do it all at once,” Sweeney says with a laugh. “I wasn’t the hurried child…. I was the hurried adult because expectations were so high.”

When she entered the fledgling cable industry, it was easier to take chances because no one knew if any of the upstart businesses would be around a year later, much less a decade. It made her bolder in an environment that had been male-dominated. “I think I found a lot of [discrimination], but it was easier if I didn’t think about it,” Sweeney says. “If I envisioned this glass ceiling above my head, I was at risk of letting it stop me. So I chose to push it aside.”

At Nickelodeon, Sweeney was able to shine. She had been hired as an assistant, and the boss quickly figured out she was a crummy typist. But she was good at evaluating programs and recommending them for purchase or pass. She learned to go out and talk to kids, putting them in charge.

“These companies let us go kooky. We had to get into the heads and hearts of the viewers,” Sweeney says. “And that flipped the switch.”

After a dozen years with Nickelodeon, Sweeney became the chairman and CEO of FX Networks in 1993.

Peter Roth, now president and chief content officer of the prolific Warner Bros. Television Group, worked at Fox at the time. He says there are many things that make Sweeney an extraordinary leader in her field. “She’s a powerful woman with outstanding graciousness,” Roth says. “She’s thoughtful and has a demeanor that’s not just professional, but caring. She makes you believe you are the most important person in the room and that your work matters.

“She’s tough, ambitious, aggressive and yet kind.”

When they first met at lunch, Roth and Sweeney bonded instantly, as he already held a deep respect for what she had accomplished at Nickelodeon. But each learned that they shared even more. Both Roth and Sweeney are parents to autistic children.

Every year for the past two decades, on Roth’s daughter’s birthday, Sweeney arranges a VIP excursion to her favorite spot: Disneyland. “Doing that for my daughter has always distinguished [Sweeney] and given her a special place in my family’s heart,” Roth says. “As successful and driven as she is, her role as a devoted mother is so remarkable. These are the intangibles of life that make certain people special.”

Care for her staff’s wants and needs is one of Sweeney’s foremost business philosophies. “You find out what people’s passions are and then help them realize their passions,” she says. “Make sure you give them the resources of the company, the time and the [knowledge] that the energy of the company is behind them, allowing them to do great work.”

Sweeney is well-known for having conversations with employees, but those talks aren’t merely a way to pass the time or make people feel comfortable.

“Every single conversation you have has to be meaningful, even if you are asking a couple of people to come in for a Friday chat,” she says. “Sometimes an idea is born.”

In her life, Sweeney believes each action plays a role in creating your next happy moment or perhaps your next unhappy moment. On her best days, she knows what path she needs to take, but acknowledges that every risk does not pay off.

“I think you have to realize that life is not certain and that no one has it figured out,” Sweeney says. “No one has the perfect family, and no one is perfect. All you can do is be the greatest version of yourself…. The times when I’ve failed are times when I believed in something for too long and didn’t look at the world around me. I didn’t realize that sometimes you just have to let something go.”

But up until that point, she’s willing to put everything on the line in her pursuit.

“I believe you need to have the guts to be wrong some of the time—and sometimes it feels like all of the time,” Sweeney says. “But everything you do is another step toward something great.”

She says Cheng helped her realize this as the company prepared to present WATCH ABC a year ago. He reminded her that the groundwork for that project began in 2005.

“Eight years later, every step we took—from a sync app for Grey's Anatomy to other things we tried and were criticized for, including small things that were not big and shiny and had no wow factor—was all about learning and was ultimately important to what we did,” Sweeney says.

And she’s not done yet.

“I’m driving everyone nuts right now,” Sweeney says. “I’m obsessed with advertising and so many things that I want commercials to do for consumers. We’ve got a couple of betas going, and I never hesitate to ask, maybe at every meeting, ‘How are we doing?’ We’ve seen a glimmer of intersection between tech and advertising, but we haven’t seen the big ideas yet, and that’s what I’ve been focused on.”

At Disney/ABC, Sweeney says, the mantra remains “What’s Next?”


The TV exec has since announced her departure from Disney/ABC. Anne Sweeney explains the bold career move to us in an exclusive Q&A.

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