As it moves closer to completing its acquisition of 21st Century Fox assets, Disney is preparing to overhaul the leadership of Disney/ABC Television Group.
21st Century Fox president Peter Rice and Fox Television Group chairman Dana Walden are slated to relocate to Disney in senior posts overseeing TV operations. Current Disney/ABC TV Group president Ben Sherwood is expected to transition to a new role at Disney, although the specifics of that role are still unclear.
The management plan for the enlarged Disney/ABC TV Group has been hammered out in the past few weeks by Disney chairman-CEO Bob Iger as the companies inch closer to the finish line of the transaction. Disney’s path to sealing its $71.3 billion bid was cleared Thursday when Comcast formally bowed out of the bidding war for Fox assets that it ignited last month by making a $65 billion counteroffer to Disney’s initial all-stock deal reached in December. A source close to the situation cautioned that Rice and Walden have yet to formally close employment deals with Disney, but the talks have been ongoing for some time.
Rice would oversee all of Disney’s TV assets with the exception of ESPN, reporting to Iger. Walden, who would report to Rice, would oversee the enlarged TV production operation, the ABC network, and the Freeform cabler. The emphasis would be on turning the combined ABC Studios-20th Century Fox TV into a prolific supplier of shows for an expanding number of platforms, including Hulu, which Disney will gain control of by consolidating its 30% share in the streaming platform with Fox’s 30% interest. It is believed that FX Networks chief John Landgraf will make the transition to Disney with much of his team intact to run FX Networks and FX Productions, while Courteney Monroe will remain CEO of Washington, D.C.-based National Geographic Global Networks.
Walden and Rice are both longtime Fox executives. Rice came up through the feature film side at 20th Century Fox and Fox Searchlight before shifting to the TV side in 2009. Walden rose up through the 20th Century Fox TV ranks and has headed the Fox network and TV studio alongside chairman Gary Newman since 2014. She is high on the list of most prominent women in the entertainment industry. She joined the board of Hulu in November, representing Fox’s interest in the streaming service.
Rice has long been a highly regarded executive who is seen as a potential successor to Iger as Disney CEO. Those rumblings have been around for some time, even before Disney’s courtship of 21st Century Fox began last summer. Iger’s current contract runs through 2021. The decision to bring in Rice and Walden is an acknowledgment of the strength of Fox’s TV management team.
Sherwood has headed Disney/ABC TV Group since early 2015, when he took the reins from longtime Disney executive Anne Sweeney. Sherwood maintains a good relationship with Iger who aims to keep Sherwood in the fold in a high-level post. ABC has gained momentum with new programming in the past two seasons, but Sherwood’s track record in other areas has been mixed.
Sherwood most recently championed ABC’s investment in reviving “American Idol,” which paid off for the network with a credible performance this past season albeit at a high cost. ABC also fielded a hit last season with medical drama “The Good Doctor.” The network briefly laid claim to the most-watched series in TV last season with the “Roseanne” revival, but the ratings glow was short-lived after star Roseanne Barr sent a racist tweet that forced ABC to cancel the show in late May.
On the cable side, Sherwood steered the former ABC Family cabler through a name change to Freeform and a big push to reach its young adult audience on the streaming and mobile platforms that increasingly drive viewing for younger demographics.
But Disney/ABC insiders have questioned whether Sherwood was the right leader for a time in which the fundamentals of the broadcast and cable business are changing rapidly. ABC and Disney’s cable channels are facing dwindling linear viewership. ABC Studios has lagged its studio competitors in delivering buzzy hits for its sibling network.
Disney is in the process of ramping up its content production pipeline to feed the streaming entertainment service it plans to launch by the end of next year. The effort is a big leap for Disney into a direct-to-consumer approach to distributing movies and TV shows to compete with the new breed of global streaming platforms a la Netflix and Amazon. Disney’s pursuit of the Fox assets are an effort to turbo-charge the TV operation with marquee franchises ranging from “The Simpsons” and “Family Guy” to the upcoming “Avatar” movie sequels to evergreen series such as “24,” “The X-Files,” “Prison Break,” “Glee,” and “Modern Family.”
Rice and Walden come into the picture at Disney having steered the prosperous 20th Century Fox Television and Fox 21 Television Studios divisions, turning out high-profile shows for a multitude of Fox-owned and outside outlets that grabbed 59 Emmy nominations last week, making it second among studios only to HBO. At the same time, the Fox broadcast network (which is not being acquired by Disney) has endured a long ratings slump on Rice and Walden’s watch, although last season the network began to show signs of a turnaround.
A former Rhodes Scholar, Sherwood came up the ranks at ABC News and NBC News in the late 1980s and ’90s. He was named exec producer of ABC’s “Good Morning America” in 2004. He left the show in 2006 but returned as president of ABC News in 2010. On his watch, “GMA” rose in the ratings to top its a.m. arch rival “Today” in 2012 for the first time in 16 years. That momentum propelled Sherwood’s rise to the top of Disney/ABC TV Group.
(Pictured: Peter Rice, Dana Walden, Ben Sherwood)