Exec shuffle looms at Alphabet

Younger, Iger may shift in revamp

The promotion of Pat Fili-Krushel to president of the ABC Television Network is prompting a wave of speculation about exec shifts which could be in the works at the Alphabet web and parent Walt Disney Co.

Among the changes expected to be announced as early as this week is the promotion of ABC Inc. VP Laura Younger to chief financial officer. Younger is filling the position left vacant in May when Peter Murphy was tapped by ABC parent Walt Disney Co. to serve as chief strategic officer.

Sweeney to head cable

In another move with implications for the ABC Television Network, Disney is about to make Anne Sweeney the head of all of its cable networks except the four ESPN channels. As part of her promotion, she’s also expected to play a greater role in overseeing ABC’s Saturday morning kids lineup.

More executive changes are under way at ABC Entertainment as well. Jeff Bader is being upped to senior vice president of program planning and scheduling, from vice president.

Iger’s role may expand

Further down the road, several industry observers and ABC insiders are interpreting Fili-Krushel’s appointment as another sign that ABC Inc. president Robert Iger is preparing to take on an expanded role within Disney, possibly as a second-in-command to Disney topper Michael Eisner.

“Iger is cleaning up and straightening things up so he can be more involved with Disney,” one Mouse House insider said.

Indeed, Iger has admitted that he’ll be spending far more time on the West Coast over the next two years as more and more of ABC’s corporate execs and staffers migrate to the web’s new offices on the Disney lot.

Caution counseled

Other sources within ABC caution against reading too much into Fili-Krushel’s promotion, saying Iger simply wanted to pare down the number of Alphabet web execs reporting directly to him.

As a result, while former ABC network prexy Preston Padden controlled sales, affiliate relations, marketing, broadcast operations and engineering, Fili-Krushel’s domain will be expanded to include all of Padden’s responsibilities plus ABC News, ABC Entertainment, daytime and latenight programming and coordination with ABC Sports and kids programming.

In a statement Friday, Iger said Fili-Krushel “has an extraordinarily diverse background in television programming and extensive business and operating experience. … Her background and experience are well-suited for these new responsibilities.”

Appointment surprises

Still, the promotion of Fili-Krushel to a position that makes her arguably the most powerful woman in television came as a surprise to many in the industry, because rarely does someone vault from head of daytime to network president.

Some inside sources are speculating that ABC Entertainment chairman Stu Bloomberg will not be pleased that he’s now reporting to Fili-Krushel, rather than directly to Iger. “Unless Fili-Krushel and Bloomberg are friends, people can’t see this working,” one source said.

But other sources, close to Bloomberg, scoff at the notion that the Entertainment topper is miffed at the new layer of management.

“To know Stu is to know he wouldn’t want the (network president) job,” said one. “Stu couldn’t care less to whom he reports.”

Fili-Krushel says she’s not planning to bigfoot Bloomberg, ABC News prexy David Westin or any of the other execs now under her.

“I’m a big believer in the philosophy that … you have to have the right people in the right jobs and then let them lead,” she said, adding that she “was really impressed” by Bloomberg’s fall 1998 development slate.

Fili-Krushel says her first priorities in her new position will be the launch of the web’s new fall sked and seeking a resolution regarding the ongoing battle between ABC and its affiliates over how to pay for the web’s megabucks NFL deal.

Sweeney in for Laybourne

As for Sweeney, Disney officials declined to comment on her upgrade. But one insider says Sweeney, 40, who’s president of the Disney Channel and executive VP of Disney/ABC’s cable networks, will settle into the slot relinquished two months ago by Geraldine Laybourne. On May 28, Laybourne resigned as president of Disney/ABC’s cable networks to set up her own media company, pulling in ABC Inc. as its first investor.

Sweeney’s new duties will give her a role in the direction of Lifetime TV, which Disney owns jointly with Hearst; A&E and its sibling History Channel, which Disney has a 37.5% stake in; and E! Entertainment TV, which is 39% owned by Disney.

“Disney has done a smart thing in promoting Sweeney,” says Lynne Buening, VP of programming for Falcon Cable, a top-15 MSO (multisystem cable operator). “She’s highly professional and creative, and good at motivating her staff. And she understands how to do programming that blends learning with entertainment.”

Since Sweeney ankled her post as chairman and CEO of Rupert Murdoch’s FX Networks Inc. in March 1996 to join Disney, she has presided over Disney Channel’s successful transformation from a pay network to a basic-cable network. The channel’s subscriber count has shot up during that period, from about 18 million to the current 42 million total. Only four million of the 42 million are still pay subscribers, the main holdouts being Time Warner Cable and Comcast, two top-five operators.

Disney Channel’s Nielsen ratings have shot up commensurately over the last two years, both in primetime and total day — although ratings are less crucial to Disney’s overall strategy, because the network doesn’t accept advertising, harvesting its revenues from the license fees funneled to the channel every month from the cable operators. The industry pegs Disney Channel as second only to ESPN as the highest-priced nationally distributed cable network on cable operators’ expense sheets.

Before Disney, Sweeney ran FX from 1993-96. She spent her previous 12 years in the industry as an executive with Nickelodeon/Nick at Nite, where she worked with Laybourne. When Sweeney left Nickelodeon/Nick at Nite, she was senior VP of program enterprises. She has an Ed. M. degree from Harvard.

(Richard Katz and Jenny Hontz contributed to this report.)

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