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Apr 20, 2004  •  Post A Comment

Disney Elevates Sweeney, Bodenheimer to Oversee Media Networks

The Walt Disney Co. announced a major corporate reshuffling today that puts ABC Cable Networks President Anne Sweeney and ESPN President George Bodenheimer in charge of Disney’s Media Networks unit, which will encompass all of Disney’s broadcast and cable networks.

On the heels of ABC Entertainment Chairman Lloyd Braun’s departure two weeks ago, ABC Entertainment President Susan Lyne, the No. 2 creative executive, resigned from the network today. ABC quickly named Touchstone Television President Stephen McPherson president of ABC Primetime Entertainment. The move comes as producers are turning their completed pilots in to the networks and less than four weeks before ABC presents its fall programming to advertisers at the upfronts in New York.

In other shuffling, Mark Pedowitz, who has been executive VP, ABC Entertainment Television Group, was named president of Touchstone Television and executive VP of ABC Entertainment Television Group. Rich Ross was named president of Disney Channel Worldwide, and Paul Lee was named president of ABC Family.

Ms. Sweeney will continue to head Disney’s cable networks and adds oversight of the ABC Television Network, which includes ABC Entertainment, ABC Daytime, ABC News and Touchstone Television, to her plate. Ms. Sweeney also was named president, Disney-ABC Television. Mr. Bodenheimer will continue to head ESPN and ABC Sports. Both will report to Walt Disney Co. President Bob Iger.

ABC Network President Alex Wallau will shift to a new title as president of ABC Network Operations and Administration. He will oversee news, broadcast operations and engineering, ad sales, affiliate relations and the integration of ABC Sports with the ABC TV Network.

In the new structure, Mr. McPherson will be responsible for ABC prime-time entertainment programming, while Mr. Pedowitz will oversee the studio. Both will report to Ms. Sweeney.

Mr. Ross, who assumes his new title immediately, is responsible for the day-to-day operation of Disney’s cable channels for kids and families, including Disney Channel, Toon Disney and 22 international Disney Channels. His previous title was president of Disney Channel. Mr. Lee, who previously was CEO of BBC America, will oversee ABC Family’s programming, operations and creative direction. Mr. Ross and Mr. Lee will report to Ms. Sweeney.

‘Roots’ Could Be too Racy for Today’s Prime Time: ‘Roots’, the Emmy award-winning network miniseries from the ’70s might be too racy for prime-time TV today. That was one observation offered by First Amendment attorney Robert Corn-Revere during a panel session Tuesday at the National Association of Broadcasters convention in Las Vegas. “I would find it very difficult to advise a client that it would be safe to air ‘Roots’ in this environment,” Mr. Corn-Revere said. Federal Communications Commission Enforcement Bureau Chief David Solomon, another speaker on the panel, specifically declined to speculate on whether the program, which showed topless African American women and childbirth in its opening scenes, would pass muster, “I don’t feel I’m in a position to answer hypotheticals,” Mr. Solomon said. Mr. Solomon warned broadcasters that the agency is also open to revoking licenses for egregious indecency violations. “We are looking in appropriate cases to see whether that’s an option” Mr. Solomon said.

NAB Attendance Up From Last Year: Attendance at the National Association of Broadcasters convention in Las Vegas was 97,544 on Tuesday, up from 88,020 last year. NAB also said international attendance was 22,320.

Susan Lyne Resigns as ABC Entertainment President: Susan Lyne has quit as president of ABC Entertainment; and rumors were swirling Tuesday in the TV industry about promotions for Steve McPherson, Touchstone TV president, and Mark Pedowitz, the ABC Entertainment executive VP who has been the well-regarded dealmaker and administrator for his division and Touchstone.

Announcements were expected from ABC by day’s end, but it was unclear how wide-ranging the announcements might be.

Meanwhile, Lloyd Braun, chairman of ABC Entertainment, slipped away from the network quietly last week and is said to be off on vacation.

Ms. Lyne’s decision to leave rather than be denied control of the network’s programming caught the TV community by surprise. It comes just three weeks before ABC is scheduled to unveil its 2004-05 prime-time plans and some 26 months after Ms. Lyne gave up her post as the network’s successful movies and miniseries executive VP to begin a grueling bicoastal commute to try to improve ABC’s fourth-place fortunes.

Mr. Pedowitz joined the network in 1991 and has gained a solid reputation for, among other things, making deals that helped Ms. Lyne make development deals outside the ABC family.

Mr. McPherson has a reputation for finding and developing hits, including “Scrubs,” “My Wife and Kids” and “According to Jim.”

Mr. Lyne , who chose to leave rather than report to a new division head, began calling friends in the network’s ranks Tuesday to tell them goodbye. She was expected to leave Tuesday afternoon.

Malone in Talks to Purchase News Corp. Assets: Liberty Media Chairman and CEO John Malone is holding talks with News Corp. about buying some of Rupert Murdoch’s international television assets, according to a report in Britain’s Financial Times.

While nothing appears to be imminent, Mr. Murdoch was quoted as saying the discussions between Liberty and News Corp. are “fairly active.”

Whether or not a deal will be struck remains to be seen. People familiar with News Corp. said that Chairman and CEO Rupert Murdoch isn’t itching to sell any of the company’s assets.

A spokesman for News Corp. declined to comment on the article.

This marks the second time in recent weeks that Mr. Malone has indicated an interest in acquiring News Corp. assets.

In March Mr. Malone suggested that one of the reasons that Liberty boosted its stake in News Corp. was to lay the groundwork for the two media titans to swap assets at a later date. Mr. Malone has expressed an interest in bolstering Liberty’s stable of international assets in light of the company’s decision to spin off its international assets into a separate public company.

NBC Gets FTC Approval for Vivendi Universal Deal: NBC’s planned acquisition of Vivendi Universal Entertainment received the OK from the Federal Trade Commission Tuesday, setting the stage for the network to complete the $14 billion takeover in the next few weeks.

According to a person familiar with the situation, the official unveiling of NBC Universal is slated to take place before NBC’s upfront presentation the week of May 17, and at this stage all that’s left is “corporate housekeeping” that must be completed before the deal is official.

When the takeover is completed, NBC parent General Electric will own 80 percent of the combined entity, with Vivendi Universal holding the remaining 20 percent. The new company will have under its belt Universal Studios, a film production company and the television production operation responsible for the “Law & Order” franchise, among other things, and a collection of cable networks, including USA, Sci Fi, Bravo, MSNBC and CNBC. The new company will also own theme parks.

Powell Warns at NAB That Digital Proposal Could Be Best Option: A proposal by the Federal Communications Commission that could force broadcasters to switch to digital in 2009 is being vehemently opposed by the broadcast industry. But FCC Chairman Michael Powell on Tuesday warned that the plan could turn out to be the lesser of possible evils for the industry. “More dangerous things might be afoot,” said Mr. Powell in a session at NAB’s convention in Las Vegas.

The controversial proposal at issue would essentially force the conversion by switching agency must-carry rights from a broadcaster’s analog to its digital signal as of Jan. 1, 2009. Also, under the proposal cable operators would have the leeway to meet their obligation to ensure that a must-carry broadcaster’s digital signals are available to all of its customers by
downgrading the broadcaster’s digital signal to analog at a system’s headend.

Broadcasters have complained that the proposal could stymie the transition by robbing cable subscribers of incentive to acquire DTV sets. But in his remarks at the NAB convention, Mr. Powell warned that pressure is building to force broadcasters to return their analog channels to the federal government for auction-something broadcasters are supposed to do when the switch to DTV is complete. “This country has an enormous amount of valuable spectrum real estate parked in this transition,” Mr. Powell said. “The demands for the spectrum have intensified.”

DirecTV Sells Stake in PanAmSat Unit: DirecTV Group said today it has sold its 80.5 percent stake in the PanAmSat Corp. unit to private-equity firm Kohlberg Kravis Roberts & Co. for $4.3 billion, including the assumption of debt.

KKR will pay DirecTV $23.50 per share in cash and assume $750 million in debt. The sale furthers DirecTV’s efforts to shed noncore assets in favor of focusing its energies on its satellite TV service, which executives project will grow by about 15 percent annually to 15 million subscribers by the end of 2006 from the current level of around 12 million.

PanAmSat operates a fleet of 24 satellites used by media companies for video distribution and was put up for sale shortly after Rupert Murdoch’s News Corp. purchased a controlling 34 percent stake in DirecTV late last year from General Motors for $6.6 billion.

Another DirecTV business that has been put up for sale is Hughes Network Systems, which runs satellite-based high-speed networks sold to businesses. Some have estimated it could sell for between $1 billion and $1.5 billion.

DirecTV CEO Chase Carey said in a statement, “The sale of PanAmSat is a significant step toward the completion of our plan to transform the former Hughes corporate structure to a single business, with a single focus on DirecTV.”

In purchasing PanAmSat, KKR beat out bids from rival private-equity firms, including a consortium consisting of Blackstone Group, Carlyle Group and Providence Equity Partners and a team made up of Thomas H. Lee Partners, Bain Capital and Quadrangle Group.

DirecTV said that as a result of the sale the satellite operator would extend and enhance agreements it has with PanAmSat to ensure the continuation of revenue streams derived from DirecTV services.

The sale is expected to be completed in the second half of 2004.

CBS, ESPN Expand Tennis Coverage: CBS and ESPN will expand their coverage of tennis as lead broadcast partners of the U.S. Open Series of tournaments. The series organizes 10 summer tournaments under one rights fee and marketing umbrella, which organizers believe will make it easier to know when they are on and what channels they are one.

CBS, which signed up for the series as part if its renewal of U.S. Open rights last year, will add weekend coverage of two tournaments this year, and may air as many as four in future years. ESPN and ESPN2 plan to televise 92 hours of tennis events beginning this year. ESPN’s deal with the U.S. Open Series gives it half of the ad inventory. The U.S. Tennis Association will sell the other half of the commercial inventory. It has two charter sponsors, Olympus and Massachusetts Mutual, and is looking for a title sponsor for the entire series.

The RCA Championships will be part of the series, but its finals will continue to be broadcast by NBC, and the TD Waterhouse Cup finals will be televised by Fox Network. The Tennis Channel is negotiating to cover early-round matches for the U.S. Open Series tournaments.

Anti-Eisner Vote at Disney Tops 72 Percent: The scope of the anti-Michael Eisner movement became clearer late Monday after it was revealed that 72.5 percent of the votes cast by current and former employees who belong to The Walt Disney Co.’s 401(k) plan withheld their support of the Disney CEO during last month’s annual shareholder’s meeting.

The results, which were released by dissident shareholders and former board members Roy Disney and Stanley Gold, indicate support for Mr. Eisner is weak inside the company as well as out. At least from a symbolic standpoint, the figure bolsters the case made by Mr. Disney and Mr. Gold that Mr. Eisner no longer can effectively manage the media giant.

At the March 3 annual shareholders meeting, more than 45 percent of votes withheld support for Mr. Eisner. Mr. Disney and Mr. Gold later fought to force the company to release the vote of current and former Disney employees with 401(k) plans.

After the vote, the Disney board stripped Mr. Eisner of his chairman title and named board member George Mitchell nonexecutive chairman.

“Despite an attempted Disney spin to the contrary, we believe this vote by the company’s 401(k) participants is a meaningful barometer of employee dissatisfaction with the way The Walt Disney Co. is being run,” Mr. Disney and Mr. Gold said in a statement.

Mr. Mitchell earned a no-confidence vote of nearly 64 percent among retirement plan participants. Among all Disney shareholders, his no-confidence vote stands at 26 percent.

Both numbers, the dissidents said, indicate Mr. Mitchell should be replaced as well.

H-P Charts Convergence Strategy With Digital Media Platform: Hewlett-Packard doesn’t want to be just a computer maker anymore. Planting its flag squarely in the middle of the digital revolution, H-P detailed its plans to play a central role in the convergence of the information technology, consumer electronics and entertainment industries during a keynote speech Monday delivered by H-P Chief Technology Officer Shane Robinson at the National Association of Broadcasters Convention in Las Vegas.

A core component of the strategy is H-P’s Digital Media Platform, an integrated, standards-based platform developed in conjunction with Warners Bros. and DreamWorks. Based on H-P’s technology, the platform will simplify and reduce the costs of content production, consumption and distribution for the entertainment business, Mr. Robinson said. It will do so by linking production and post-production technologies and applications so that content creators can easily share and access content when making TV shows and movies.

As part of the new platform development, Mr. Robinson said Warner Bros. plans to use H-P tools to digitize many of its classic movies and TV shows. The two companies also plan to create a “post-production studio of the future,” which will be used by Warner Bros.’ high-definition TV shows.

H-P will build out the Digital Media Platform working with a series of partners it announced at the show, including Savvis, Starbucks and Avid, as well as Warner Bros. and DreamWorks.

ESPN, HBO Dominate Sports Emmy Awards: ESPN and HBO each took home seven awards as the biggest winners at Monday night’s 25th Annual Sports Emmy Awards in New York. NBC was the leading broadcast network winner, picking up four Emmys.ABC and Fox won three Sports Emmys each, followed by CBS, ESPN/ESPN2, HBO/NBC, iN Demand and NFL Network with one each.

Individual winners included NBC’s “Iron Man Triathlon Championship” with three Emmys and HBO’s “Real Sports With Bryant Gumbel” and ESPN’s “SportsCenter” with two each.

During the ceremony, “Meet the Press” moderator Tim Russert presented the Lifetime Achievement Award to father and son Ed and Steve Sabol of NFL Films.

A complete list of winners is available online at www.emmyonline.org. Fox Sports Net will air a one-hour “best of” special with highlights from the event at 9 p.m. Sunday, May 2.