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Anne Sweeney’s Disney Exit Heightens Focus on Bob Iger Succession Plan

Call it a show-within-a-show.

A second succession drama has burst onto the scene at Disney with the March 11 disclosure that Anne Sweeney will step down from her executive perch as Disney/ABC TV Group prexy by January to pursue her goal of becoming a television director.

After Disney insiders got over the surprise of Sweeney’s left-turn career move, news of her departure set off feverish speculation inside and outside the Mouse House about who would fill her shoes in managing the majority of Disney’s TV assets (other than ESPN). Disney chairman-CEO Bob Iger fanned the flames by confirming that he intended to move quickly in setting a replacement, who would come from within the ranks.

The post-Sweeney speculation only heightened the curiosity about the other big succession drama unfolding at Disney — the battle for the chairman-CEO title that Iger is scheduled to give up in July 2016.

Indeed, Sweeney’s carefully orchestrated exit announcement was immediately read as a response to the fact that it was clear the 18-year Disney vet was not a contender for the throne. Sweeney insisted that wasn’t the case, and said she had turned down Iger’s offer to sign another long-term contract under which she would have remained the TV topper.

“A lot of people wanted that (CEO) job for me,” Sweeney told Variety. “What I knew was that as great as that job is, it wasn’t the job I wanted for myself. I did not want that as my next chapter.”

The contest to move into Iger’s office is still largely seen as a two-man race between Disney Parks head Thomas Staggs and chief financial officer Jay Rasulo.

The two logical contenders are ABC Entertainment Group president Paul Lee and ABC News president Ben Sherwood. Both have strengths and weaknesses concerning whether they’d be the best exec for the job. Sherwood is riding the momentum of “Good Morning America’s” ascent that ended NBC’s “Today’s” 16-year winning streak on the ayem battlefield. Lee has had a tough season with programming misfires, but is respected internally for his analytical style and for a thoughtful approach to adjusting to the changes buffeting the broadcasting business.

Gary Marsh, Disney Channels Worldwide head, is a candidate if only because of the heft of the empire he overseas. The company’s collection of U.S. and international cable channels has helped it maintain its competitive edge in kidvid and tween-centered programming, all the while minting new stars and properties that in many cases become franchise players across Mouse House divisions. But Marsh is known to be focused on staying close to the creative process, something he couldn’t do at the Sweeney level.

Iger was not exaggerating when he asserted that Disney has a deep exec bench to draw on in finding Sweeney’s successor. Now all he has to do is give the TV drama its third act, and move on to the grand finale.

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