After adapting to COVID protocols last summer and fall, most of Disney’s TV productions have maintained virus transmission rates of less than 1%, making them “some of the safest places” in Los Angeles, Disney TV chief Dana Walden told a group of Harvard University undergrads on Sunday.
Walden held a virtual Q&A Sunday morning as part of the annual Intercollegiate Business Convention organized by Harvard Undergraduate Women in Business. Walden, one of the highest-ranking executives in the content industry, was recognized by the organization with its lifetime achievement kudo, which was presented by her 17-year-old daughter, Casey Walden.
In a wide-ranging interview, Walden spoke about breakthrough moments in her career, the impact of digital disruption on the entertainment business, the explosion of platforms and what that means for the diversity of storytelling.
When asked about the coronavirus pandemic had changed the vast Disney content operation that she oversees, Walden noted that the ABC soap “General Hospital” was the studio’s first show to go back before the cameras last year after the sudden shutdown in mid-March. The fast pace of production on a daytime soap opera proved to be a good place for the studio to learn how to apply COVID safety procedures on other sets.
“They get so much done because of the production cycle of that show — it’s a machine. We got to learn so much about best practices,” Walden said.
The Disney Television Studios imprints that Walden steers had to shutter some 65 active series in a matter of days. After “General Hospital,” ABC created a production bubble at a hotel in Palm Desert, Calif., to film a season of “The Bachelorette.” As dozens of other shows have come back online, Walden said the studio has kept transmission rates under 1%, compared to as much as 7%-9% for other areas of Los Angeles County. She credits the determination of cast and crew members to stay back in business as usual.
“Our shows have become some of the safest places in this city because of a very motivated work force,” Walden said. “Everyone wants to be back at work.”
Walden also gave the audience insight into her early career as a TV executive in the mid-1990s working in publicity for 20th Century Fox’s television unit at the time when, under the direction of then-studio chief Peter Chernin, Fox began to spend big and recruit top showrunners. Walden offered a glimpse behind the curtain of what changed Fox’s reputation from being a risk-averse, tight-fisted studio to being the home of the most daring shows on the air.
At a retreat in 1994, Walden made the case that Fox should step up its game during a short presentation that wound up impressing Chernin. “I was honest about the fact that our studio at that point was not making the right kind of deals. We weren’t in business with the kind of storytellers I thought could take our studio and really make it a significant player in our industry,” she said.
Some of that came down to a willingness — or lack thereof — to spend cold hard cash on writing talent.
“We’d make little offers, but as soon as the agent would come back to us with a counter, we would back off and one of competitors would get the deal,” Walden said. Her presentation laid out her view that the studio could generate more business through deals with “more meaningful creators.”
Walden’s pitch got the boss’ attention. Soon after she got the shot to move from publicity into creative development for the studio. Five years later, Walden was named co-head of 20th Century Fox Television. Over the past two decades, 20th has generated such notable shows as “24,” “Glee,” “Buffy the Vampire Slayer,” “Modern Family,” “Family Guy,” “Bones,” “Prison Break,” “Ally McBeal” and “The Practice.”
Walden’s advice to undergrads poised to enter the working world was to be an effective listener in meetings, which means paying attention to each speaker without getting wrapped up in thinking about what you’re going to say next.
“One of the most important things that everyone who is sitting in a meeting can do is really listen to each other,” she said. “When you’re thinking about what’s the right thing to say in your head, you’re trying to think about that and not really listening to the other people at the table.”
Although Walden helps to run one of the world’s largest content production operations, she predicts that in the near future there may be a counter-response in the creative community to the consolidation the entertainment industry has experienced in recent years, such as the 2019 union of Disney and her longtime employer, 21st Century Fox.
“There will be greater opportunities for smaller production companies over time,” she said. “Some artists will again want to be with a smaller company to curate their ideas and figure out exactly what’s right. That will lead to all sorts of other opportunities.”
Asked to look ahead at the industry’s evolution over the next 10 years, Walden stressed that it’s a good time to break into the entertainment business because there is such demand for content and diversity of viewpoints.
“In the next 10 years is going to be significantly more artists and storytellers and great consumer products brought to viewers,” she said. “It’s going to be a great 10 years of growth and opportunity.”
(Pictured: Dana Walden, right, and daughter Casey Walden)