Sweeney in ABC Family Way

Oct 13, 2003  •  Post A Comment

ABC Family is now in Anne Sweeney’s family.
In a corporate reorganization, the cable network, acquired two years ago by The Walt Disney Co. for $6 billion, will fully become part of the ABC Cable Networks Group, headed by Ms. Sweeney, the president.
The shift gives Ms. Sweeney-who is credited with turning the Disney Channel from a quiet pay service for kids into a booming basic cable business-sway over all of Disney’s cable investments, except for its sports networks, headed by ESPN.
“It makes sense to have it all under one umbrella,” said Zenia Mucha, senior vice president, corporate communications for Disney. She said the move was made now because certain contractual constrictions on the network had expired.
The change also raised questions about the future of ABC Family President Angela Shapiro, who Disney put in charge of the network in 2002 after her successful run as head of ABC’s Daytime division. Instead of reporting to Disney President Robert Iger, under the new organization Ms. Shapiro would report to Ms. Sweeney, who also reports to Mr. Iger. That move is seen as a demotion, if not a signal that Ms. Shapiro may not be long in the job.
ABC Cable spokespeople declined to comment and insiders acknowledged that the moves raise questions about Ms. Shapiro’s tenure, but they insisted Ms. Shapiro was “on board” and would be at her desk this week.
Ms. Mucha said, “We have the utmost confidence in Angela and understand that her programming plans need time to develop.”
Calls to Ms. Shapiro’s office were not returned.
The change was announced quietly last Tuesday morning, with Ms. Sweeney telling her direct reports during a staff meeting, and Ms. Shapiro telling her staff sometime after that, sources said.
The ABC Cable Networks Group already handled distribution and Disney Channel helped program its kids block, but finding the right programming mix for the channel historically has proved a challenge.
As for the Family Channel, the network featured wholesome kids, family and religious programming, including Pat Robertson’s “700 Club.” When News Corp. and Haim Saban acquired the network, its focus changed, with more violent shows such as “Power Rangers” for kids and grown-up shows in prime time. The changes resulted in a sharply lower rating at the channel. “700 Club” remains a part of the lineup.
Originally, Disney saw ABC Family as an outlet to multicast many of its shows as well as an opportunity to strengthen its position in the kids market. The network has featured ABC series including “Whose Line is It Anyway?” and “Less Than Perfect” and reality programs, including “The Bachelor.”
Cable operators balked at that programming strategy, turning affiliate renewal negotiations into difficult battles.
Disney created business units designed to program and sell ABC and ABC Family over different dayparts and demographics. For example, there was a kids group and a daytime group. These were designed to create greater synergies and coordination between the networks.
A year ago, Ms. Shapiro brought in Linda Mancuso as head of programming for ABC Family. Mancuso had been chief operating officer at Peter Engel Productions, which produced some shows on NBC’s old Teen NBC block.
With the network’s kid viewership continuing to drop precipitously, earlier this year ABC Family announced a new programming direction. It said it was aiming to be a younger version of ABC, with light-hearted entertainment aimed at the MTV generation-viewers in the 12 to 24 demographic.
ABC Family planned several original movies and planned to have films represent the bulk of its prime-time schedule. The network also experimented with some new series, including a “Dance Fever” update; “Switched,” a reality show in which two kids swap lives; and the “Brendan Leonard Show,” a show featuring and produced by a teenager.
ABC Family also planned a reality show featuring Roseanne Barr, which would have a companion show on ABC. But both shows were canceled in August when Ms. Barr underwent a hysterectomy.
For the third quarter ABC Family in prime time averaged 363,000 persons 2+, down 9 percent from the year-ago quarter. Among adults 18 to 49, the channel’s delivery was up 1 percent to 153,000 viewers.