Cheng’s moves click Mouse

Digital topper shifts Disney's new media into high gear

You know your new job is going to be interesting when, a week after you start, a deal that literally transforms the TV business falls into your lap.

That’s how things went when Albert Cheng, exec VP of digital media for Disney-ABC Television Group and Integrate ’06’s Visionary Marketer honoree, started his new job on Oct. 3. The next week, Apple and Disney announced their deal to start selling TV shows via iTunes.

The pact was made by a handful of top execs, including Bob Iger, Steve Jobs and Anne Sweeney. Cheng only learned of the deal a few hours before it was publicly announced.

That meant one of his first tasks was talking to those affected — both internally and externally, from network affiliates to ABC and Disney channel execs — about what the deal meant and how it would impact them.

It’s a role that has continued to be a substantial part of his job. With the digital landscape changing rapidly, Cheng has found that even more than dealmaking, he spends his time educating, and sometimes reassuring, execs throughout Disney’s TV operations.

“I probably spend the most amount of time educating our own staff and partners about what we’re doing in the digital space,” he explains. “There’s a lot of interest, and also some worries, as there always are with anything new.”

For his part, Cheng was spearheading such efforts for the Mouse House’s TV properties even before there was a digital media group to lead. In previous exec posts, he has worked extensively on video-on-demand and interactive TV opportunities for ESPN and other Disney cable networks.

But such efforts were often slow going, as getting all parties onboard complicated deals — at a time when digital simply didn’t seem urgent to many in the entertainment industry — was often a difficult task.

“I was really surprised at how long it took to get anything going in video-on-demand,” he observes.

Now however, largely spurred by the Disney-iTunes pact, Hollywood seems to be making digital distribution deals left and right, and Cheng has a lot more on his plate.

Next up: a new service launching this spring that will stream episodes of Alphabet Network shows on ABC.com for free starting the day after they air. The two-month experiment will feature most of the Touchstone-owned shows currently available on iTunes and will have integrated interactive ads in place of commercials that aired on TV.

If all goes well, Cheng hopes to launch a more comprehensive version of the service in time for the fall season.

“People will have a choice to watch for free with ads or pay and download the shows commercial-free,” he notes.

There are plenty of other items on Cheng’s plate, including upping Disney-ABC’s online presence overseas, working with network affiliates to improve their Web sites, collaborating with ABC News in the ultra-competitive Internet news space, and considering opportunities for original online content.

He also has to maintain and grow the relationship with iTunes, which recently expanded when Touchstone and NBC made “Scrubs” available.

It’s the first time a skein with a studio and network that aren’t part of the same conglomerate became available for legal download.

Indeed, Cheng has plenty of dealmaking on the agenda. But if the recent past is any indication, he’ll have even more explaining and reassuring to do.