It was no knee-jerk appointment: Bob Iger’s decision to name ABC News chief Ben Sherwood as Anne Sweeney’s successor atop Disney/ABC TV Group had been in the works for nine months. as far as Iger was concerned.
Sherwood (pictured right), however, had no idea until after Anne Sweeney made the surprise announcement March 11 of her plan to step down in January. Iger (pictured left) zeroed in on Sherwood after Sweeney first told him of her exit plan last June. But he didn’t discuss it with anyone other than Sweeney in an effort to keep Sweeney’s news under wraps until she was ready to go public.
Sherwood’s process as a manager and leader since taking the helm at ABC News in December 2010 — his third tour of duty at the Alphabet’s news division — sealed the deal in Iger’s view.
“I have been extremely impressed, not only with the success he has delivered at ABC News but with his work ethic, his intellect, his curiosity and his desire to learn,” Iger told Variety. “I think he has great instincts. While we have a deep bench at Media Networks (division) and there are a number of people who are talented and qualified, in the end I thought (Sherwood) was the best choice for the job.”
Iger emphasized that Disney now “has the luxury of time” to allow Sweeney and Sherwood to work together to make for a smooth transition at the top as well as in filling his shoes at ABC News.
Sweeney’s announcement spurred all manner of speculation about possible restructuring of the Media Networks unit that houses Disney’s TV assets and the prospect of Sweeney’s top-level responsibilities being parceled out to several execs. But Iger dashed all that chatter, saying that he’s happy with the way things have been functioning since April 2004 when Sweeney took the reins of all Mouse House assets other than ESPN. Like Sweeney, Sherwood will also serve as co-chairman of Media Networks alongside ESPN chief John Skipper.
“This organization seems to function extremely well,” Iger said. “It’s a sprawling collection of pretty valuable assets for the company. Ben may come in and see things we haven’t seen. But we have the luxury of time here to have a smooth transition which will give Ben the chance to spend a lot of time with the people who are reporting to Anne and to learn more about the business.”
The Sweeney-Sherwood transition comes at a time when the ABC broadcast network overall is struggling ratings-wise in primetime. Iger has been vocal in his support of ABC Entertainment Group president Paul Lee, who is in the midst of setting a new contract with Disney, and sources said he has made his support to Lee clear to Sherwood.
In terms of priorities for the TV Group in the new era, Iger said those won’t change much. Harnessing the power of digital distribution opportunities is important, something Sherwood demonstrated by championing ABC News’ partnerships with Yahoo within his first few months on the job.
“The No. 1 priority is to make good product,” Iger said. “The second is to use technology to market and distribute in innovative ways and the third is to continue to grow globally. Obviously making great stuff comes first and foremost. Ben has done a good job of being forward-thinking about distribution strategies and a real willingness to embrace change.”