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.”

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 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.”

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.

“I think what excites me is the unknown,” she says. “There’s no certainty when you launch a cable channel, when you launch an app, that people are going to like it . . . if you truly have something people are going to stick with.” Faced with extra airtime but little money to create programming, Sweeney was thrilled to be part of the team that acquired old-timey family favorites like Mister Ed and The Donna Reed Show and packaged the reruns as Nick at Night. “We went through the inventory that was available, then looked at things we had loved as kids,” she says. Given the success of that programming, the idea now seems like a no-brainer. But at the time no one felt sure that contemporary audiences would respond to shows from a generation before. The classic TV programs appealed as kitsch to kids and teens while also tapping into boomer nostalgia.

In 1993 media mogul Rupert Murdoch called Sweeney and offered her a promotion and the chance to explore her love of launches, writ large: He wanted her to move to Los Angeles and, as chief executive officer of FX Networks, help him start a cable channel. If Sweeney hesitated before accepting, she had good reason. The family was set up in its first real house—“a sweet Dutch Colonial, the kind you dream about”—in White Plains, New York. Her husband, who had just graduated from law school, had lined up a job at a big New York City firm and was studying for the bar.

“Just when you think you have everything organized, God laughs,” she says. “I spent the next couple of days talking to my husband about it . . . and every piece of the refrigerator was covered with pro/con lists.” Ultimately, she says, it was her spouse’s willingness to move to California and take the bar exam in both states—“a wildly unpleasant experience,” she notes—that convinced her the move could work.

“He looked at me and he said, ‘You gave me law school. The next adventure is yours.’ ”

Sweeney's great adventure at Fox saw her launch two cable channels in three years—FX, which featured a mix of sports, news, live TV and reruns, and FXM: Movies from Fox, the industry’s first studio-based movie network. FX established an early foothold on the then-new World Wide Web, encouraging viewer interactivity with the channel. Murdoch “taught me not to be afraid of any idea,” Sweeney says. In 1996, Sweeney’s former boss Laybourne hired her away to Disney/ABC, where she oversaw the launches of Toon Disney (now Disney XD) and SOAPnet and more than quintupled the Disney Channel’s subscriber base. She ascended to her present position in 2004.

The family’s relocation to the West Coast in the early ’90s proved fortunate in ways Sweeney could never have imagined. When her son, Christopher, was two, she began noticing that he had cognitive issues, so she took him to the pediatrician. She returned home with a diagnosis—something called pervasive developmental disorder—and a feeling of helplessness. After the move to Los Angeles, a doctor examined Chris, by then nine, and told Sweeney and her husband that their child was autistic. “It was, in an odd way, a relief: At least we knew there was something we could read about,” she says, adding that they found “a brilliant speech therapist who willed him to talk. Then we kept throwing a lot of therapy at him.” A seismic change in her son’s development came when Miller decided to go part time. “To have Dad on the ground when Chris got home? It was life changing for us,” says Sweeney. “It was an enormous sacrifice on my husband’s part, but he made it for our family.”

While working for Murdoch, Sweeney met Peter Roth, then president of Fox, whose daughter is autistic. They became “friends and support systems for each other,” says Roth, who now runs Warner Bros. Every year, he says, Sweeney arranges a VIP trip to Disneyland for his daughter, who is passionate about the amusement park. For that, he says, “I will always be grateful to her.”

Sweeney’s daughter, Rosemary, 22, is getting her master’s degree—in, yes, education—at Stanford. Chris, 27, lives in a group home and often comes to visit his parents on the weekend. Sweeney’s face lights up when she talks about her son; it’s clear that she truly appreciates the man he has become. “He calls everyone every day,” she says. “He checks in with his aunts, his cousins, his sister. To me, he is who we would all like to be: that person who never stops caring about everyone in his family and community.”

Part of what Sweeney’s son has taught her is how important her at-home life is—how, if you let it, work can be all-consuming. “I do have a hard line around my family,” says Sweeney, who avoids morning meetings and tries to leave the office by 6 pm. “For a lot of years, I read every article about time management . . . I think when I finally gave up on the idea of balance, it was a really”—she hesitates, looking for the right word—“happy moment. You can drown in to-do lists. Or you can thrive and have a happy, messy life. Which I do.”

Running such a large empire by definition requires a certain formidability—and Murdoch has described Sweeney as “an iron fist in a velvet glove.” Her off-hours pursuits include hawking, a sport Sweeney characterizes as both beautiful and terrifying. The birds are “magnificent,” she says. “The talons are out, and it’s ready to just grip your wrist.” On the job, though, she prefers to avoid theatrics. “I’m not a screaming, desk-pounding executive,” she says. “I always find it more effective to have a strongly worded conversation.”

Sweeney works hard at bringing humanity to her position, trying to get to know everyone from the marquee talent to the worker bees. With that in mind, she hosts a series called Coffee with Anne, inviting 25 employees she’s never met for a caffeine fix and gabfest. She breaks the ice by sharing something about herself. “I’m sorry I’m late,” she’ll say. “We took our daughter back to college this weekend, and I’m a little upside down.”

Shonda Rhimes, creator of a trio of ABC dramas—the hospital monster hit Grey’s Anatomy; its successful spinoff, Private Practice; and her newest, the political thriller Scandal—describes Sweeney as a calm, reassuring force who “uses her power well, and wisely.” It was Sweeney who introduced Rhimes when the producer was honored with a Visionary Award by Essence magazine last February. “She’s got a great sense of humor and [her intro] was really charming,” Rhimes recalls. “Right before we went up, she turned to me and said, ‘I’m going to do something, and I don’t want you to be mad at me,’ and I was like, Oh my God. What is she going to do?”

Instead of “just getting up and giving a lovely speech about me,” Rhimes says, Sweeney “brought a tiara and crowned me an official Disney princess.”

Given how well Sweeney’s realms performed last year, she deserved a tiara of her own. Even as Disney’s movie division flailed around in the wake of the Martian adventure flick John Carter, deemed one of Hollywood’s costliest flops ever, Disney Media Networks, cochaired by Sweeney and ESPN president John Skipper, was a bright spot at the Mouse House. Six freshman ABC series returned this fall, including breakout hits such as the evening soap Revengeand the fantasy-drama Once upon a Time. In March the Disney Channel toppled ratings juggernaut Nickelodeon from its spot as the most-watched cable network by total daily viewers, and in September, Good Morning America knocked the Today show from its perch. Media Networks revenues grew 9 percent in fiscal 2011, to $18.7 billion. Fiscal 2012 results were not yet available as More went to press, but division revenues for the third quarter were up 3 percent.

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.

MARGY ROCHLIN is a Los Angeles–based journalist and frequent contributor to More.

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First Published Fri, 2012-10-26 10:28

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