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

Because her other love was acting—she’d been appearing in school plays since childhood—her next thought was to make a profession out of that. One of her college-theater directors, who was also the head of casting at Grey Advertising, suggested she might find work doing voiceovers. But when Sweeney walked into his Manhattan office and spotted the stacks of actor head shots on the floor, she realized she was staring at her odds of making it big in show business: “I thought, The chances of me being a picture in a stack are pretty good.”

Even as she discarded another dream, though, she began piecing together a future that combined education and drama. “I was not going to be a working actress. I wasn’t going to be a teacher. [But I wanted to be a part of] children’s entertainment,” says Sweeney, who headed to Harvard in 1979 to earn a master’s in education after discovering that some of the Sesame Street creators were teaching there. It was while sitting in the back of a class called Children and Television that she met her future husband, Philip Miller. “He was so irreverent,” she says, adding that she was attracted enough to ask him out. “I said, ‘Would you like to play squash with me?’ and he said, ‘No, but I eat it sometimes.’ He thought he was being witty.” Five years later, they were married.

Sweeney’s first job after graduation, working for an independent television production that satirized the 1980 presidential race, fell apart after three months. “The show turned out to be so expensive, they closed our department,” she says. “That was a great lesson in you’re there one day and not the next.” But when someone she’d met on that job asked, “What do you really want to do?” she went with her gut and replied, “I really want to do kids’ TV, but I can’t get a job at Sesame Street.” That contact led Sweeney to the then-fledgling cable channel Nickelodeon, where she got a job as an assistant to the director of acquisitions, Geraldine Laybourne.

The memory of her shabby secretarial skills still makes her laugh out loud: “Gerry gave me the first memo to type. It took me, like, half the day, and she came to me and said, ‘I thought you said you typed really fast,’ and I said, [she switches to a tiny, sheepish voice] ‘Well, compared to my friends [I do].’ ”

What Sweeney lacked in IBM Selectric skills, she made up for in her ability to critically assess TV movies and specials that might end up on the network. Not much later, Laybourne, a former schoolteacher herself, taught her the art of negotiation the low-tech way. Sweeney would sit at her boss’s side as Laybourne haggled into the telephone receiver. “We didn’t have a speakerphone,” says Sweeney. “So I would listen to what she was saying to someone we were buying a series from, and then she’d get off the phone and say, ‘OK, remember when I said that? Well, then he said this.’ And I learned to negotiate by listening to half the conversation and having the other half filled in.”

Over Sweeney’s next 12 years at Nickelodeon, she rose to the position of senior vice president and had two children. It was when the cable channel, which was on the air for half the day, had the opportunity to enter into a 24-hour cycle that she discovered she was a self-described launch junkie.

Originally published in the December 2012/January 2013 issue

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