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Listen: Dana Walden on TV’s ‘Existential Crisis,’ TV Studio Vision and Why She Joined Disney

Dana Walden was already one of the most powerful executives in television during her time as co-head of 20th Century Fox Television and Fox Television Group. The merger of Disney and 21st Century Fox has put her at the forefront of Disney’s bold bid to tackle what she describes as the entertainment industry’s “existential crisis.”

Walden spoke June 12 at Variety’s TV Summit in Los Angeles, marking her first public remarks since becoming chairman of Disney Television Studios and ABC Entertainment. Walden’s conversation with Variety business editor Cynthia Littleton is featured as the latest episode of “Strictly Business,” Variety’s weekly podcast featuring conversations with industry leaders about the business of entertainment. 

Walden had plenty of options when the first word of the Disney-Fox deal in late 2017 turned her into a free agent. She characterized her decision to move into a top post at Disney as a “no-brainer” amid the turbulence in the marketplace. During the interview, she outlined the vision and reasoning behind the post-merger structure of maintaining three distinct production labels under the Disney Television Studios umbrella: ABC Studios, 20th Century Fox Television and Fox 21 Television Studios.

“Being part of this industry over past five years and seeing the incredibly dynamic change and the disruption to our business — my fantasy was to be at a company that was really about creativity and storytelling but was also oriented to the future,” Walden says. “I feel that’s exactly where I ended up.” She praised Disney chief Bob Iger as an “extraordinary, visionary leader” who is focused on “what I think can be described as an existential crisis for media companies.”

Disney’s decision to scoop up 21st Century Fox for $71.3 billion and re-engineer a big part of the company’s revenue base with its expansion into direct-to-consumer streaming services is a brave move to respond to the tidal wave of competition from upstart streaming ventures a la Netflix and Amazon.

“You have two choices in that situation. You can put your head in the sand — we’ve seen some of our competitors do that — and we’ve seen (companies) dip a toe in the water and start very specific, smaller streaming companies,” she says. “In those circumstances for Bob to take this enormous step and acquire Fox at quite a number, it was a declaration about taking this beloved company that is all about characters and storytellers and bringing them into the future.”

Disney’s roots in the entertainment business and its track record of innovation was a big part of the appeal of joining Disney, Walden added.

“When I looked around and thought about companies that are fundamentally a phone company, a cable company, a retail company — companies where the tech started the businesses and then the creativity was acquired — culturally I think those companies are always going to be very different from a company that’s been about storytelling for almost 100 years,” Walden says.

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