Disney-ABC's Anne Sweeney: Inspiring Creativity & Embracing Technology

By Jack Myers Lunch at Michael's Archives

Originally Published: February 13, 2006

In many ways Anne Sweeney views her role as co-chair of Disney Media Networks and president of the Disney-ABC Television Group as comparable to her passion for restoring her 1700s stone house in the Hudson Valley, not far from where she grew up in Kingston, New York, where her ancestors settled in the 1600s, and to which she remains emotionally connected. Maintaining the core strengths of a house's foundation while restoring it room-by-room is comparable to the approach Anne has taken to rebuilding the ABC-TV network, which has experienced stunning revitalization since she added it to her portfolio in Fall 2004.

Just as Anne remains connected to the Hudson Valley, Anne believes viewers are connected to TV programs and networks. "Ultimately, success is all about relationships," she says. "I've always believed a brand is a relationship you have with consumers; its about viewers' emotional connection with your shows, your program franchises, your networks and your advertisers. We need to keep our relationships with audiences strong, relevant and connected."

"Our first priority as a company," she said, "is creativity and making sure we provide an environment that inspires creativity and encourages people to go beyond the norm. Our second priority is advancing our brands and franchises across all our divisions and into new technologies, staying ahead of technology advances."

Over our Lunch at Michael's™, Anne was especially eager to chat about Disney Channel's new franchise High School Musical, which premiered on January 20 and has achieved record ratings, generated record-setting music sales for iTunes and broadband downloads, and has catapulted to iconic status among young teens literally overnight. Anne complimented MediaVillage's Ed Martin on his early embrace of High School Musical, adding that five students from her daughter's high school class sent home ideas for the show. "Its core message is all about being who you are and not being pigeon-holed," Anne commented, admitting even she has watched the movie three times. "Its message resonates with audiences of all ages."

Surrounded by a typical Michael's who's who in the media business including Ambassador Carl Spielvogel with MPG's Charlie Rutman (Spielvogel's wife Barbara Lee Diamondstein Spielvogel sat at another table), Discover Magazine's new owner Bobby Guccione, Conde Nast's David Carey, investment banker Dennis Miller, ICM's Esther Newberg, Becca Cason Thrash, David Brown and WABC-TV news anchor Liz Cho, Anne spoke candidly about her issues for the future and her responsibilities overseeing the ABC Television Network, Touchstone Television, and Disney-ABC Cable Networks Group (Disney Channel, ABC Family, Toon Disney, SOAPnet, Jetix), plus Buena Vista Television, Walt Disney Television Animation and Disney's equity interests in Lifetime, A&E Television Networks, and E! Entertainment Networks.

"One challenge is we need to sort out business models as we go. It's up to each company to sit back and take a deep breath and decide to take a risk. You have a creative vision and there's a fine line between success and failure." Anne believes the cable industry has matured in distribution and "is now ready for its second act. The first act was building distribution and brands. The second act is about building relationships with consumers and embracing the new technologies." Two years ago, Disney Channel was the first cable network to premier a regular series episode on video-on-demand in advance of the regularly scheduled airdate. An advance episode of the hit series That's So Raven premiered seven days in advance in a VOD test with Cablevision and research showed the uptick in VOD exposure was dramatic, ratings for the series actually improved, and there was no negative impact.

"There are great ways to learn what consumers want, improve the brand relationship and get closer to viewers," Anne believes, "and we decided to be experimental in the VOD space." (High School Musical was also made available in advance through subscription video-on-demand.)

Anne was credited by Walt Disney Company CEO Robert Iger with shepherding and finalizing the recent iPod programming agreement in only three days. "We knew the world was changing," she says. "Bob asked me to meet with Steve Jobs, and I had the opportunity to hold the beta version of the video iPod and have the experience as a consumer. It wasn't about the deal; it was about watching Lost, seeing the quality was there, and understanding the consumer experience. It was captivating and felt like a logical next step. I also felt strongly about iTunes ability to market our content and understand our platforms. The experience they're providing consumers is at the highest level and they respect and are committing to protecting our content."

As they embrace new media technologies, ABC and other programmers are facing concerns with TV station affiliates, and Anne points out "the iPod deal was very fast moving and we couldn't disclose the discussions because of our non-disclosure agreement. It's difficult professionally; I'm so accustomed to sharing and being collaborative." Anne sent a video iPod to the governors of the ABC Affiliate Board and has discussed the implications of new technologies with affiliates. "As we look at opportunities, we are looking for ways to work with affiliates and figure out how we build the relationship, while creating value for our viewers and shareholders."

Research, Anne points out, is going to play the most critical role in understanding the viewer and determining how to best navigate the options. "The more work we do on understanding how people use media, the smarter we'll be. We are taking leadership positions but we are also saying no to a lot of opportunities." Research is also an integral part of the changing relationship between media companies and advertisers, and Anne is committed to understanding and advancing the "new metrics advertisers will be using to measure the multi-media universe as opposed to individual media."

International expansion is a third priority for Disney-ABC Television, along with encouraging creativity and embracing new technologies. The Disney Channel has distribution in 24 countries including India, where it has 17 million subscribers. "The next great step is developing our creative staff around the world," says Anne.

Although Anne is immersed in her career, she travels frequently with her husband, attorney Philip Miller, and two children to their Hudson Valley home and she finds occasional time to play the piano, favoring Mozart. The family is very involved with the Help Group School for communications disorders, which Anne and Phil's 20-year old son Chris, who is autistic, attends.

As we lingered over coffee at Michael's, Anne smiled as she shared a story that personifies her busy life. "My daughter was three weeks old when my husband started law school. We were going to find time after he graduated to go to Italy together, but my very first day back at work (as senior VP program enterprises for Nickelodeon/Nick-at-Nite), Rupert Murdoch called." She presided over the launch of FX and was then recruited in 1996 to join Disney. "We still haven't made it to Italy," she laughs.

Anne Sweeney can be contacted by writing to her at contact@mediavillage.com.

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