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

So she made the controversial iTunes deal that caused her phone to erupt with furious calls. “The yelling days,” she laughs, remembering the uproar from industry types who believed she’d dealt “appointment television” its biggest blow since the VCR. Less than a year later, she introduced another first, an ad-supported player on ABC.com that allowed viewers to catch up on their favorite broadcast shows by watching them online for free. In 2010, ABC was the first broadcast network with an episodes app for the iPad. After making similarly innovative deals with such partners as Netflix, Hulu and YouTube, Sweeney was hailed by Fast Company magazine in a mock Spider-Man comic as “The Amazing Sweeney: Catches Digital TV Partners Just Like Flies!”

While the rest of the industry was still absorbing the notion of content unteth-ered from its box in the corner of the living room, Sweeney recognized that there was no putting the digital genie back in the bottle. Even if the networks resisted making their content available online, she reasoned, others wouldn’t hesitate to do so. “Piracy is a business model. It exists to serve a need in the market: consumers who want TV content on demand,” she bluntly warned thousands of media executives during a startling 2006 keynote address at MIPCOM, a giant content exhibition in Cannes. “We want to go wherever our viewers are.” In October 2011, she was back in front of the crowd at Cannes, this time as MIPCOM’s Personality of the Year—the first woman ever to win that award—and continuing to advance her cause of TV without borders. “The more personalized television gets, the less passive the experience will become,” she said. “Television has always been something you watch. Now, increasingly, it’s also something you do.”

If Sweeney needs a reminder of how far her industry has come, she need only glance over at the vintage Emerson TV set a few feet away in her office. Encased in glass, with its blank screen staring upward, the unit doubles as a coffee table. (“The screen’s about the size of an iPad,” she notes, tapping on the glass.) In her Michael Kors print dress and stylishly layered hair, Sweeney exudes an aura of absolute composure except for two tiny nervous habits: She smooths the hemline of her dress and pats her bangs. A stream of her own gentle questions—“Where are you from?” “How did you get involved in this business?”—makes it easy to forget that she has topped the Hollywood Reporter’s Women in Entertainment Power 100 list three times, that she is 22nd among this year’s Forbes World’s 100 Most Powerful Women and 12th among Fortune’s 50 Most Powerful Women in Business and that she is rumored to be on the short list to succeed her boss, Walt Disney Company chair and chief executive officer Robert Iger, who is expected to step down in 2015.

In spite of how far Sweeney has come, she insists she has never followed a carefully plotted work path. “I’ve seen people manage their careers to get the next title,” she says. “I’ve always managed my career on what I was curious about.”

When she was younger, Sweeney expected to be informing and entertaining a classroom of kids, not a global TV audience of billions. Education, she says, was practically in her DNA: Her mother, her grandmother and several aunts were teachers, and her father was an elementary school principal. But during her freshman year at the College of New Rochelle, when Sweeney began putting in her mandatory hours at the Child Studies Center, she had an epiphany. “You know that moment when you realize you’re not cut out for something?” she says. “I had that great moment of clarity: If I kept going down this track, I would be responsible for teaching someone how to read. The idea of that was so daunting, and I didn’t believe I could do it. Then I realized that I didn’t want to do it. But I had a real devotion to kids, and I felt that I would be doing something for them. I just didn’t know what it was going to be.”

Originally published in the December 2012/January 2013 issue

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