NEW YORK — Patricia Fili-Krushel, the president of Walt Disney’s ABC TV Network, announced Tuesday that she will exit the web to join Healtheon/WebMD, an Internet health care company, as president-CEO of its consumer division.
Fili-Krushel, the highest-ranking woman in broadcast TV, was promoted to president in 1998 when the web was lagging behind CBS and NBC. During her seven-year tenure at ABC, she has been instrumental in helping the net soar from third to first place, mostly as a result of the success of “Who Wants to Be a Millionaire.”
The current stability of the web apparently helped Fili-Krushel make the decision to leave. “If I felt that I had a lot of work left to do (at ABC), I wouldn’t feel good about leaving,” she said.
West Coast welcome
While she has previously expressed her concerns about relocating from New York to Burbank, where Disney is establishing a new corporate headquarters, Fili-Krushel said that the impending move was not the main impetus for her departure.
“It was a factor, but it wasn’t the factor. My preference had been to remain in New York, but I had gotten my arms around the idea of it,” she said.
In fact, as recently as two weeks ago, Fili-Krushel was house hunting in L.A. and picking out schools for her two young children.
The main reason she decided to leave the net was because she saw an opportunity she couldn’t refuse. “It just feels right. When it feels right and things are going well and you’re at the top is the best time to leave,” said Fili-Krushel, who denied reports that she was concerned about the possibility of having to report to a new boss.
ABC has reportedly been considering naming a replacement for Steven Bornstein, the former president of ABC Inc. who moved over to take charge of Disney’s Internet unit last fall. While Fili-Krushel has been reporting directly to Disney prexy Robert Iger, under the new leadership, Bornstein’s successor would be her new boss.
‘Further away from the product’
Fili-Krushel said she wasn’t concerned about having a new higher-up, and she was never interested in being named to Bornstein’s former position.
“I didn’t want a more senior role where I was further away from the product,” she said. In addition to overseeing Fili-Krushel and ABC’s network operations, Bornstein was responsible for ABC’s cable nets, including ESPN, as well as ABC’s radio and TV stations.
Another industry source concurred that Fili-Krushel left of her own will rather than being pushed.
“Nobody (screwed) her, nobody dropped any balls. Her star could have risen as far as she wanted it to in that company,” said one industry insider familiar with Fili-Krushel’s exit.
ABC had no official comment regarding Fili-Krushel’s departure. But in a memo that Iger circulated to the company’s department heads, he thanked her for her contributions to the success of the net, saying, “She has done a great job leading an especially strong group of executives, and their accomplishments together are setting records in the industry.”
Until a replacement for Fili-Krushel can be found, Iger has appointed veteran ABC exec Alex Wallau to serve as an interim president. Wallau, who has been serving as president of ABC TV administration and operations since August 1998, had worked with Fili-Krushel on policy issues within the network.
In her new position at Healtheon/WebMD, Fili-Krushel will be responsible for setting the strategic direction for the company’s consumer offerings and programming, including its online consumer portal WebMD Health, the Health Network, and other joint initiatives with various News Corp. media properties. She will report to Jeff Arnold, CEO of Healtheon/WebMD.
“The company is in a unique position to transform the health care arena, and my experience in developing programming, delivering information to the consumer marketplace and in growing integrated media companies will help accelerate Healtheon/WebMD’s position,” said Fili-Krushel.
Mouse House cleaning
Fili-Krushel is the latest in a string of high-profile departures for Disney.
Most recently, Joe Roth resigned as chairman of the company’s film division. In August, ABC Entertainment president Jamie Tarses quit after a corporate reorganization stripped her of some of her authority over program development and she clashed with ABC Entertainment Television Group co-topper Lloyd Braun.
Prior to being named president of ABC, Fili-Krushel served as president of ABC Daytime, where she was credited with the successful launch of the talkshow “The View.” Also, she was instrumental in working out a new multiyear relationship with affiliates that allowed the network the ability to repurpose programming on other non-ABC outlets.
“She gets her marching orders and does what she has to do,” said Ed Piette, general manager of KSTP, the ABC affiliate in Minneapolis. “ABC’s affiliates may not have always agreed with her, but she was somebody you could respect.”
Fili-Krushel began her career at ABC in 1975, holding several positions, including comptroller of ABC Sports. Joining HBO in 1979, she began as director of sports administration and eventually worked her way up to director of production for the entire pay cable net and then VP of business affairs and production. Under her leadership, HBO began venturing into original programming. She later served as senior VP of programming and production at Lifetime Television and as group VP of Hearst/ABC-Viacom Entertainment Services.
(John Dempsey in New York contributed to this report.)