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

Like many of us, Sweeney time-shifts much of her own TV viewing to suit her schedule, and she confesses a special fondness for HBO’s Game of Thrones: “The storytelling is great. I have trouble sometimes with the violence. My husband is a steady viewer, and I’m pretty regular. But he fills in the gaps for me: ‘Oh, you missed it. They killed so-and-so.’ ”

With the gems of her own network’s hit-laden 2004–05 season now either off the air (Desperate Housewives, Lost) or fading (Grey’s Anatomy), Sweeney has her work cut out for her. This season, ABC’s bid for the daytime-talk-show hole left by Oprah Winfrey’s departure to OWN is Katie, starring Katie Couric, onetime nemesis of Good Morning America. Sweeney wants to build on the nighttime success of Revenge with Nashville, a glossy behind-the-scenes peek at the country-western music world, created by Oscar--winning screenwriter Callie Khouri (Thelma and Louise), and the military drama Last Resort seemed a good bet to lure guys back to a post-Lost ABC. (By early fall, Katie was averaging more than two million weekly viewers, and Nashville had been warmly received by critics. Last Resort did indeed appeal to men, but overall, the early ratings were not strong.)

“In every business, you’re only as good as the last great story you’ve told, and you’re always searching for the next great story,” she says. As always, though, it’s the next gadget or partnership—“how we behave and how we grow in the digital age”—that keeps Sweeney up at night but also gets her bopping with excitement. “Have I shown you the Watch app?” she asks, grabbing an iPad and sliding her forefinger across the screen to show off ABC’s colorful new portal to kid-friendly content. “We did a deal with Comcast . . . you basically say to your machine, ‘Hey, it’s me,’ and you’re able to watch the Disney Channel, Disney XD and Disney Junior on your iPad, your iPhone, your laptop or your TV set,” she explains.

After developing the technology, they tested it in focus groups. “The hardest thing was the moment when we had to say to the kids, ‘Thank you very much. We’re done.’ Because we had to take the iPad out of their hands, and they didn’t want to let go.” One kid in particular made Sweeney realize just how personal Disney’s content had become, thanks to devices that strip away, in her words, “any distance between the story and the child.”

“We have this one little girl on tape, and she’s holding her iPad and watching Disney Junior and she says, ‘I feel like I just want to get on the couch and cuddle up with my iPad.’ And I thought, Wow! When did we ever think we would hear that?”

And so the tale of the Amazing Sweeney continues to unfold. Will she top the Hollywood Reporter list for a fourth year in a row? “I don’t take [these lists] personally,” she insists. Come 2015, will she sit atop the whole of the Walt Disney Company? Is she even interested in the job? She chooses her words carefully: “My goal right now is making this division that I run very successful. Certainly if the opportunity presents itself at some point and it’s something that I’m curious about and want to do, it’s a possibility.”

There are some who think a woman will never climb that high in this field, that the entertainment industry’s glass ceiling is too hard for even the sharpest tiara to pierce. But as with the notion of balance, Sweeney isn’t buying it.

“I’ve never signed up for the glass ceiling idea,” she says. “I always felt it was placing a limitation on myself and on every other woman. I believe I’m going to succeed and fail based on what I do, based on my intellect, based on the decisions that I make, based on the people that I choose to work with . . .We can all figure out reasons why we didn’t succeed. Or we can just blow past everything.”

And rule happily ever after.

Originally published in the December 2012/January 2013 issue

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