Real-Life Disney Princess (Tiara Optional)

Once upon a time . . . an aspiring schoolteacher from Kingston, New York, changed direction and wound up in charge of a $19 billion media kingdom. How’d she do it? Disney/ABC TV chief Anne Sweeney opens up about power, family “balance” and her surprising path to the top

by Margy Rochlin
anne sweeney disney photo
Photograph: Art Streiber

UPDATE: Disney/ABC-TV chief Anne Sweeney has just stunned the industry by announcing her next act--she's stepping down to pursue a career as a director. "You don't want to wake up in three or four years and look in the rearview mirror and say, 'Oh, I Never did that,' " she told the Hollywood Reporter. In this More profile, she talks about her surprising career path. Best of luck, Anne, and we're looking forward to more great work from you as your life continues to evolve.

 

There is no such thing as silence in Anne Sweeney’s light-filled 10th-floor corner office in the Aldo Rossi-designed, Art Deco–ish ABC building in Burbank, California. When Sweeney, cochair of Disney Media Networks and president of the Disney/ABC Television Group, isn’t speaking, automated sounds pierce the quiet. In the background are intermittent fat bleeps, warbling noises and a sharp ding every few minutes (texts from one of her two assistants). When a tinny minuet explodes from somewhere on her desk, Sweeney leaps up from a chair in the center of her office to silence her family-only iPhone. “It’s my parents,” she says, laughing. “My mother would be appalled if she knew that was her ringtone.”

This merry cacophony seems only fitting for an executive who has said, “Digital didn’t weaken the power of television; it unleashed it” so many times, the line has practically become her mantra. And she isn’t just giving lip service to technology. By the time her rivals have caught wind of a new device, Sweeney, 55, will often have already gotten hold of a batch of prototypes and distributed them to her senior team, always with the same instructions: “Take it. Interact with it. Then let me know if and how it could work for us.”

One of the most powerful women in media, Sweeney oversees all of ABC TV (including daytime, prime time, news and late night), ABC Studios, ABC Family, more than 100 Disney channels worldwide, Hyperion publishing and Radio Disney—including nearly 9,000 employees (“when we’re fully loaded and in season and every show is staffed,” she is quick to specify).

If Sweeney’s kingdom is large, it is also rich, having brought forth revenue from diverse sources: TV shows such as Dancing with the Stars and Modern Family, books by Mitch Albom and Candace Bushnell, tween and kid fare such as Hannah Montana and A.N.T. Farm. But it’s her prescience about how we’ll want to consume this content that has earned Sweeney her reputation as an innovator. ABC has been “a leader in promoting the other screens,” says Brad Adgate, an expert in TV trends and senior vice president at the marketing firm Horizon Media. “They’ve been very aggressive in using digital platforms as a way to get more viewers.”

Under Sweeney, ABC was the first network to sell full-length episodes of broadcast TV shows for $1.99 each on iTunes. The seed of that strategy was a meeting that Steve Jobs had requested. “He said, ‘Hey, Anne . . . We’re developing this device, and I’d like to show it to you,’ ” Sweeney recalls. Jobs flew to L.A. and handed her an early version of a video-ready iPod, which was playing an episode of ABC’s megahit Lost.

“I thought, This looks gorgeous. This is a big, cinematic show, and it looks beautiful on this little screen,” she says. “We were talking about it and talking about it, and then he left the building and I sat there and thought, Wait a minute. How did he get a copy of Lost?”

But rather than linger on a detail like the apparent bootlegging of one of her network’s top shows—He’s Steve Jobs, she told herself; he can do anything—Sweeney focused instead on what this could mean for her company and her industry: “Did we know [selling episodes via iTunes] was going to work? No. But if we didn’t do it, we weren’t going to find out anything.”

Originally published in the December 2012/January 2013 issue

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