ABC's chair will leave post as network restructures

Barely a month before ABC unveils its fall schedule to advertisers, Disney is mulling a major restructuring of its ailing broadcast net — and current chairman Lloyd Braun will not be a part of that mix.

ABC Cable Networks Group prexy Anne Sweeney, on the other hand, has emerged as the leading contender to take on a new role that would give her oversight of the Alphabet and all of Disney’s cable properties. Move would mirror NBC’s recent decision to set up all of its broadcast and cable properties under prexy Jeff Zucker.

Should Sweeney come to ABC, it would set off a series of other changes at the network.

Indeed, before anything has been locked in place, Braun on Monday began talks with Disney execs about exiting his current post, most likely before May’s upfront. Whether he’s leaving of his own behest — or at the company’s request — remained unclear.

Braun has at least two years left on his current deal. Industry insiders have been expecting for some time that Braun would leave once the season was over (Daily Variety, April 5.)

Other than Braun’s exit, the rest of the ABC exec situation remains extremely fluid, Alphabet insiders cautioned, insisting that much of what’s being speculated about now could easily change over the next week or two.

Questions raised

Still, Sweeney’s introduction into the ABC mix raises questions about the future role of ABC Television Network prexy Alex Wallau, who currently oversees many of the divisions that could soon be part of Sweeney’s portfolio.

Several insiders familiar with the current restructuring plan say Wallau will likely be asked to stay in his current post, reporting to Sweeney. While Wallau has always been a team player, he might be rankled by such a request.

As a result, some believe Wallau will carve out a new role overseeing non-programming operations such as sales and affiliate relations, and continue to report directly to Disney prexy-chief operating officer Robert Iger. Wallau, who is well-respected within ABC, could also exit ABC entirely, though insiders note he has a close personal relationship with Iger.

Then there’s ESPN programming chief Mark Shapiro, who has been talking to Disney brass about a senior programming gig at ABC (Daily Variety, April 5.) Under one scenario making the rounds Monday, Shapiro would report in to ABC Entertainment prexy Susan Lyne, but serve as her partner — much the same way Stu Bloomberg and Jamie Tarses once shared power.

However, Alphabet insiders Monday questioned whether Shapiro would be willing to serve under Lyne, raising the possibility that Shapiro might not end up at ABC after all.

A wildcard in all these scenarios is Touchstone Television prexy Steve McPherson, whose contract expires in June.

Tricky timing

Timing of the exec restructuring isn’t the best, coming just as ABC prepares to go in front of advertisers and pitch them on the notion that this year’s batch of comedies and dramas will lead the net out of the ratings basement. Indeed, many insiders believe Disney was planning to wait until after the upfronts to make its moves — and that premature leaks about Shapiro and Braun have forced it to speed up its timetable.

Both Disney topper Michael Eisner and Iger are out of the country this week, making it unlikely any changes will be announced soon.

Braun has been at the network since 1999, serving solo in the chairman role for the past two years. His bulldog personality has won him both fans and critics, both inside and outside the network.

When Braun was elevated to chairman in 2002, and Lyne was added as entertainment prexy, Iger said he planned to keep a closer eye on ABC.

A former ABC topper, Iger has extensive broadcast experience. But critics of ABC’s exec structure believe the lack of a clearly identifiable leader such as NBC’s Zucker or CBS’ Leslie Moonves has hurt the net — and made it much harder to judge how much of ABC’s woes are attributable to which key execs.

As for Sweeney, as president of ABC Cable Networks Group and Disney Channel Worldwide, she oversees all of Disney’s nonsports cablers including Disney Channel, SoapNet, Toon Disney and most recently ABC Family.

She arrived at the Mouse House in 1996 where she spearheaded Disney Channel’s transformation from pay net into to basic cabler now available in more than 80 million homes. She was upped to Disney/ABC Cable Group Networks topper in 1998 and two years later assumed the additional role of president of Disney Channel Worldwide.

Sweeney helped launch cablers Toon Disney and SoapNet and has a role in the direction of Disney’s equity interest in cable groups Lifetime Entertainment Services, A&E Television Networks and E! Networks.

Disney Channel first started to gain traction in 2001 when Sweeney and cabler prexy Rich Ross premiered its first bonafide signature series “Lizzie McGuire.” More tween girl-targeted programming followed with “Kim Possible” and “That’s So Raven,” all of which have helped Disney Channel remains tops with kids 6-11 and tweens in primetime.

Prior to Disney, exec was chairman-CEO of FX Networks, which she launched and ran from 1993-1996. Sweeney also spent 12 years as an executive at Nickelodeon/Nick at Nite.

(Denise Martin contributed to this report.)

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