If calculated risktaking is the hallmark of leadership, Mipcom 2011 personality of the year Anne Sweeney is an example by which other leaders should be judged.As co-chairman of Disney Media Networks and president of Disney/ABC Television Group, Sweeney staked an early claim in digital distribution through a groundbreaking content deal with Apple’s iTunes in 2005, and she’s never looked back. “We’re going to see the business model for digital distribution continue to evolve, and we have to let it evolve,” Sweeney says. For the exec who famously started as a page for ABC while attending N.Y.’s College of New Rochelle, being open to change has served her well. In fact, Sweeney, who has held her current position since 2004, minced no words in declaring Disney/ABC to be as much about the business of technology as it is about content creation. With about 20 patents pending for technology developed inhouse, Sweeney says she sees investing in technology as ultimately both a cost-saving and a revenue-development measure. She points to the company’s Inventory Exchange System, announced late last year, as an example of how internally developed technology drove revenue. The IES basically allows ABC affiliates to sell additional local ad inventory at high-demand times in a way that wasn’t available before. “We worked with our broadcast affiliates to monetize time in the best way possible,” Sweeney says. “Our group has really embraced technology as part of our charter, as part of our mission.” She also points to the ABC full-episode player for the iPad as being a homegrown home run. Using technology in smart ways has led her group to a year-to-year revenue increase of 5% in the third quarter of 2011, despite an increasingly dismal global economy. Like a good leader, Sweeney credits her team for the success. “We’ve leveraged every single part of this company to produce high-quality programming,” she says. “And we did it while being very cost-conscious.” Sweeney has also mandated that her group look at the business from a worldwide perspective, which is why ABC launched the Dana Delany primetime series “Body of Proof” in six territories before its U.S. premiere — a first for the industry. “That’s a strong sign that we pay attention to our business as a global business, not as an export business,” Sweeney points out. Sweeney came into 2011 with a host of new executives under her purview, but she says she’s been excited to see what they would deliver. “I could wring my hands every day, but I choose to be more optimistic,” she says with a laugh. Not only was she thrilled to see ABC entertainment president Paul Lee’s first slate, but she says ABC Family under Michael Riley boasted its most-watched summer on record in total viewers. Disney Channels Worldwide, under Carolina Lightcap from 2009 until Gary Marsh’s rise to the top position in September, continues to thrive. Sweeney says she’s also looking forward to the February launch of Disney Junior, which will reach 99 million U.S. households when it takes over for SoapNet. Sweeney’s continued success means she’s no stranger to receiving awards, but she says being the first woman to accept the Mipcom award is really more about who she’s worked with over the years, including Nickelodeon’s Geraldine Laybourne, who took Sweeney to Cannes for the first time. “I do feel that I’ll be there accepting a very nice honor very gratefully, but on behalf of a wonderful team at Disney/ABC and also on behalf of the many women who have traversed those roles before me and with me,” Sweeney says.
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