News shakeup scrambles Alphabet

Westin's departure raises new questions

Quietly over the past year, Anne Sweeney’s Disney/ABC TV Group cabinet has undergone a major transformation.

ABC News prexy David Westin’s departure, announced Monday night, raised immediate questions about the reasons for his decision and the future of the news division. But in deciding to step aside, Westin also became just the latest in a series of Sweeney direct reports who have departed or switched jobs over the past 12 months.

So far those transitions have been mostly seamless, as Sweeney has looked within — particularly at Disney’s cable properties — to fill those voids.

Most recently, the exit of ABC Entertainment prexy Steve McPherson (which came abruptly as Disney conducted an internal investigation into his conduct) had a domino effect: ABC Family prexy Paul Lee took McPherson’s job, while Radio Disney’s Michael Riley took Lee’s job at the cable net. (Riley’s former radio position has yet to be filled.)

Last November, Carolina Lightcap took over Disney Channels Worldwide to fill the gig left open after Bob Iger tapped Rich Ross as chairman of Walt Disney Studios. Geri Wang was promoted to president of ABC sales and marketing in February, replacing Mike Shaw; and Rebecca Campbell took over ABC’s owned-and-operated stations in May after longtime chief Walter Liss retired.

Disney insiders warned that there was no larger conspiracy behind the sheer number of shuffles under Sweeney — but admitted that she wound up with the opportunity to make over her part of the Disney empire.

As a result, Sweeney, who inherited many of her lieutenants after taking over Disney/ABC TV Group in 2004, has now hand-selected most of her direct reports.

Now, she must now find a suitable replacement to take over ABC News, arguably her most difficult job so far.

Westin leaves just months after ABC News was forced to engineer a brutal downsizing. That led to the departure this spring of 350-400 staffers — a fourth of its workforce.

ABC has been unable to compete in the ratings with NBC’s flagship morning and evening news programs. “Good Morning America” perennially trails NBC’s “Today,” and “World News,” while closer to “NBC Nightly News,” is still behind. The jury also remains out on the choice of Christiane Amanpour to replace George Stephanopoulos on Sunday talkshow “This Week.”

Network news is also a less profitable venture than cable news. While NBC has two cable channels to support its news division, ABC has none.

Westin’s exit comes as many continue to speculate whether ABC can still field an independent news division. The same question hovers over CBS’ news division — and both ABC and CBS have been rumored over the years to be in talks about merging with various entities, such as CNN and Bloomberg.

The Alphabet came close to forging such a pact with CNN in 2002, while the Bloomberg rumors have popped up more recently. But the logistics of pulling off such a move have so far been too complicated.

Disney/ABC has not yet chosen a successor to Westin. But in a note to his team, the 13-year ABC News vet said that he tendered his resignation to Sweeney and Iger a month ago. Presumably, ABC has already begun searching for its next news head; insiders suggested that a replacement could be named within the next few weeks.

Westin plans to remain with ABC through the end of the year. But Sweeney said in an email to ABC News staffers said that a new successor would be announced “in the near future.”

Westin leaves no heir apparent. Dave Davis, who had served as Westin’s No. 2, left this summer to return to ABC’s New York-based O&O, WABC. With Davis gone, Westin announced a restructure in which most show producers reported directly to him.

Given that Iger and Sweeney have made a habit of shuffling execs from within — Iger last year even asked Disney chief financial officer Tom Staggs and parks/resorts topper Jay Rasulo to swap jobs — speculation has centered mostly on internal names.

There are plenty of candidates within ABC News. But Iger and Sweeney may even find an unconventional internal candidate — someone like daytime topper Brian Frons.

Meanwhile, questions continued to swirl over the reasons and timing behind Westin’s announcement. Several reports on Tuesday recounted tension between Westin and Iger, as well as less pronounced conflict between Westin and Sweeney.

Indeed, Iger has been vocal about his displeasure with the network. When asked during a shareholders meeting in March if he was planning to offload the net, Iger said, “There are no guarantees in terms of what will remain part of our company and what will not.”

But the real (if less enticing) story of Westin’s departure may simply be that he had finished a long and painful round of layoffs and cutbacks after more than a dozen years at the head of the news division and was ready to be done.

Westin was a surprise choice to take over the job in 1997. He joined ABC in 1991 as general counsel and later headed the net’s inhouse production unit before becoming network president. Westin had been interested in the ABC News post for years and was eventually groomed to replace the legendary ABC News boss Roone Arledge.

Westin inherited the ABC News division just as the world of TV news underwent a paradigm shift.

Not only was Westin forced to make massive cuts over the years, he also found himself routinely faced with succession issues as ABC News’ stable of stars slowly retired or died.

That became readily apparent in 2002, when ABC Entertainment looked to lure away David Letterman by promising him the “Nightline” spot. Westin steadfastly supported “Nightline” and eventually won a commitment to keep the newsmag on the air. It paid off for ABC: “Nightline” is once again a solid competitor at 11:35 p.m.