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Analysis: Peter Rice, Dana Walden Tasked With Forging New Path for Production at Enlarged Disney

Disney is about to become the undisputed titan of TV series production once the media giant completes its buyout of 21st Century Fox assets.

The question of how all of that activity will be strategically deployed under the Disney umbrella remains unclear even after Monday’s formal announcement of the management hierarchy for TV led by 21st Century Fox president Peter Rice, who will segue to chairman of Walt Disney Television once the deal closes early next year.

After the Fox acquisition, Disney will be home to no less than five major banners for primetime scripted series production: 20th Century Fox TV, ABC Studios, Fox 21 Television Studios, FX Productions and ABC Signature Studios.

Disney will be under pressure to squeeze out some $2 billion in post-merger synergy savings within a few years of the deal’s closing. That has led to speculation about a huge number of layoffs as Disney looks for redundancies in similar operations.

Responsibility for riding herd over TV production will largely fall to Dana Walden, the Fox Television Group chairman-CEO who will become chairman of Disney Television Studios and ABC Entertainment. She will be tasked with generating new hits for ABC as well as feeding Disney’s nascent streaming service, Hulu and Freeform, the cabler that Walden also oversees. FX Productions falls under the purview of John Landgraf, who will maintain his perch as head of FX Networks and FX Productions

Monday’s announcement confirmed that the leaders of 20th TV — Jonathan Davis and Howard Kurtzman — are making the move to Disney, as is Fox 21 Television Studios president Bert Salke. Walden’s track record in running the 20th Century Fox TV division for nearly 20 years suggests that she will be inclined to keep more than one production imprint afloat. Nonetheless, it seems unlikely that the sizable 20th Century Fox TV and ABC Studios operations will operate side-by-side as autonomous, and competitive, units.

It’s understood that the near-term plan calls for Rice and Walden to take some time to survey the landscape before more substantial decisions are made about changes to the organizational structure of the production units.

For the 20th Century Fox TV team, there is sure to be an adjustment period in the relocation to Disney. The over-arching priority will be to supply high-end programs Disney-owned outlets amid the heightened competition for talent and viewers. 20th TV has long juggled the twin demands of servicing Fox and FX as well as maintaining a healthy profile as a supplier to non-Fox outlets.

But as Disney ramps up its global battle with Netflix next year, there will be a clear focus on the need to prime the pump across all Disney outlets. After all, a hit show for ABC can be a future lure for subscribers to a streaming platform in an on-demand universe.

Like other large studios, 20th TV has already been facing a tougher road in setting up projects at outside networks because of the demands that networks are making to own most if not all of their content, for the same reason that Disney is shelling out $71 billion-plus to acquire Fox’s content engines and libraries. As such, the shift in focus to emphasize serving in-house channels is opportune, as the process of selling elsewhere becomes more fraught.

Sources close to the situation emphasize that film and TV production will be an enormous strategic advantage for Disney as it ramps up its still-unnamed streaming service. But strategic concerns can be undone by the practicalities of integration and execution, particularly amid an effort to meld two cultures as disparate as Fox and Disney.

Rice and Walden will have their work cut out for them as they help forge a new path for Disney at the same time the industry grapples with systemic changes in the way programming is produced, distributed and most important — monetized.

The decision by Disney chief Bob Iger to hand the largest TV jobs to Fox leaders demonstrates his faith in the skill that Rice and Walden have already demonstrated at Fox. Now he’s given them the keys to what could be the most vital part of the Magic Kingdom. And it is quite a kingdom, with Fox’s core brands joining Disney’s arsenal of IP, from Marvel to “Star Wars” to Pixar properties. As Iger put it in announcing the appointments, “this new structure positions these proven leaders to help drive maximum value from a greatly enhanced portfolio of incredible brands and businesses.”

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