When other television networks saw the Internet as a threat, Anne Sweeney took a broader view. “TV is a platform; the Internet is another platform. As a company, we’ve utilized every platform,” explains Sweeney, co-chairman of Disney Media Networks and president of Disney-ABC Television Group. Seeing change as opportunity is key to her success: “TV as a technology has always evolved. When you look at the progression of the technology from the picture tube to the birth of stations, it has never been static. That’s inspiring to me.”
Curiosity, creativity and a single-minded focus on what consumers want have guided Sweeney’s groundbreaking career. Overseeing several properties, including the ABC Television Network, Disney Channels Worldwide, ABC Family and ABC Studios, she has led the industry in distributing television content via new platforms, including the iPod, iPad and streaming online.
Sweeney attributes her passion for change to her No. 1 mentor: her mother. “She encouraged me to search not just for jobs, but ideas, and to really explore my creative side.”
Both of Sweeney’s parents were educators, and she had planned to be a teacher until her freshman year at the College of New Rochelle in New York. “I realized my first day at the child study center on campus that I wasn’t cut out for teaching,” she says with a laugh. So she focused on her other love: theater. During rehearsal for a play, “A cast member walked in wearing a blue blazer with an ABC patch. I asked what he did, and he told me he was a page.”
Sweeney got a job as an ABC page during her senior year, and the experience proved life-changing. “Every minute was different, and the people I worked with were incredibly generous with their advice,” recalls Sweeney. “It was a wonderful, exciting environment.”
After college, Sweeney started working at Nickelodeon in 1981, when Geraldine Laybourne had just taken the cable channel’s helm. Experiencing those tumultuous early years of cable prepared her to navigate the roaring rapids of today’s TV industry. “When I started at Nickelodeon, we would write a ‘shutdown scenario’ every year when we submitted our budget,” Sweeney recalls. “We didn’t know how long we were going to be around. It was early training for taking a risk with new technology.”
From Nickelodeon, Sweeney went to FX Networks; in 1996, she joined the Walt Disney Company, assuming her current role in 2004. Along the way, she was mentored by Laybourne, Walt Disney Company president and CEO Bob Iger, and News Corporation chairman and CEO Rupert Murdoch. They taught her to “be fearless,” she says. “To boldly go out and explore not only new ideas, but also new technologies and what they can do for our industry and for our creative content.”
In October 2005, Disney-ABC took a huge leap, embracing those new technologies when it became the first media company to sell commercial-free TV episodes for the then-revolutionary video iPod in Apple’s iTunes store. The risky decision—Sweeney has compared it to “jumping off a cliff”—transformed the industry.
How does Sweeney know when to take such risks? “You have to understand your content, your organization and your goals, and know how to evaluate the opportunity quickly.” With the video iPod, for instance, “We saw the beta [iTunes] store. We saw the video iPod, and we knew the reputation and quality of Apple products. We also knew that Apple was a top marketer and had an amazing relationship with their consumers, as do Disney and ABC.”
Consumers are the driving force for Sweeney, who advises those considering risky moves to “do your homework and think through as much as you can how your consumer is going to respond. At the end of the day, it’s not about us; it’s about what we do for the consumer.”
For Sweeney, staying in touch with what consumers want and need is vital. “Always make sure the conversation is ongoing,” she says. “It’s never about one focus group or one survey. It’s about being aware of how technology impacts your life and the lives of your family members and friends. Listen and pay attention.”
Based on what consumers wanted, in 2006 ABC became the first network to stream full show episodes free on its website. The streaming broadband player it developed to enhance the viewing experience won an Emmy for technical innovation.
Today, social media helps Disney-ABC stay in tune with consumer demands. “Social networking isn’t a pure marketing tool—it’s the community of your show or your network,” Sweeney says, citing Lost as an example. “By the time the [series] finale aired, social networking was one of the most critical pieces of the entire Lost equation. It enabled fans to do what we hadn’t been able to do previously, which was to keep the conversation around Lost going.”
Listening to the team is equally crucial to Sweeney, who eschews micromanaging. “Hire smart people and let them do their jobs,” she advises. “I know what my strengths are, but no one knows how to do everything.” Aside from smarts, Sweeney looks for employees who are “good listeners and good communicators. It’s very important to make sure everyone understands the goals of the organization.”
A team that shares her drive and creativity is also essential. “I’m curious by nature,” she says. “When new technology comes out—and this is why I love my team so much—no one ever hesitates to walk in my office and say, ‘Have you seen this? What would you think of us using this technology for this or that?’ ”
Sweeney continues to seek new content platforms. ABC was the first network to offer full episodes on the iPad. Last year, Sweeney was instrumental in Disney’s taking an equity ownership in online video aggregator Hulu.com, a move she says will expose ABC content to a broader audience.
While Sweeney frequently takes risks, they’re never snap decisions. For instance, in 2012 Disney-ABC will end its SOAPnet channel network and replace it with Disney Junior, a 24-hour cable channel for preschoolers. The decision was based on a decade of experience growing the Playhouse Disney channel outside the United States.
Global markets are learning laboratories for Sweeney, who notes that in many countries where Disney-ABC does business, technology is far more advanced than in the United States. “[Mobile phones] are an area where other countries are far ahead of us,” she says. “We’re watching consumer behavior to determine: What are the most useful things we can do for people with mobile? What are the different business models?”
Sweeney’s unofficial motto, “Create what’s next,” has certainly paid off. Despite the challenging media environment, Disney-ABC’s Media Networks segment had revenue growth of 7 percent in the first six months of 2010.
Sweeney’s achievements (including a master’s degree from Harvard) have earned her too many accolades to list, including awards from dozens of industry and women’s organizations. She’s been named the Most Powerful Woman in Entertainment by The Hollywood Reporter, one of the 50 Most Powerful Women in Business by Fortune, and one of the World’s 100 Most Powerful Women by Forbes. She speaks regularly and is appearing at The Women’s Conference in California this year. What advice would she give a rising young executive?
“[Titles are] meaningless,” Sweeney says. “It’s about what you’re learning. Make sure you’re in a job, a company, a department that gives you the opportunity to learn and to be curious.” After nearly 30 years in television, Sweeney is still following her own advice: “The beauty of this industry is that every day is different. I’ve never been bored, and I know I never will be.”
Rieva Lesonsky is CEO of GrowBiz Media, a content and consulting company that helps entrepreneurs start and grow their businesses. Her associate Karen Axelton contributed to this article.