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Anne Sweeney: Did the Spin on Her Disney Exit Backfire?

It remains to be seen whether Anne Sweeney will ever direct an episode of television. But the skepticism that greeted the announcement that she intended to pursue that new career says quite a lot about the town’s addiction to spin – and an executive known to be particularly adept at crafting and cultivating her image.

Sweeney’s carefully orchestrated break of her decision to leave her post as co-chair of Disney Media Networks and president of Disney/ABC TV Group appeared to elicit more groans than the usual executive departure story, in which industry titans say they have decided to “pursue independent production” or “spend more time with my family.”

That’s in part because Sweeney’s decision to become a TV director doesn’t have much in the way of precedent. While many corporate execs have found second lives as producers – Fred Silverman and Richard Frank come to mind – directing is generally a more specialized and distinct skill set.

In addition, Sweeney’s assertion that she harbored no aspirations for a promotion – despite Disney CEO Robert Iger’s pending matriculation to chair the board – sounded unconvincing. Historically, executives don’t rise to that level of success without casting a covetous eye at the next rung of the ladder, whatever that might be. (Disclosure: My wife works for a division of the company.)

Those factors help explain why Sweeney’s announcement, even with Iger echoing her version of events, struck many industry insiders as odd, prompting head-scratching at the Television Academy’s Hall of Fame event Tuesday, which happened to fall on the day the news broke.

In a sense, Hollywood executives have become victimized by their own public-relations apparatus, which is so adept at insisting everything was amicable, even when it wasn’t; and every changing of the guard was an idea that originated with the person who’s leaving, even when it didn’t.

Cry wolf enough times, and nobody tends to believe it when one actually shows up.

The town will eventually know whether Anne Sweeney’s version of that ritual plays out as the parties have described, or represented just another exercise in saving face.

For now, though, the Sweeney story has merely offered a new permutation of an old Hollywood line: “What I really want to do is direct.”

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