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Q&A: Leading the Way to Growth

May 18, 2008  •  Post A Comment

Anne Sweeney can add the National Cable & Telecommunications Association’s Vanguard Award to the list of accolades she’s acquired since being named president of the Disney-ABC Television Group and co-chair of Disney Media Networks in 2004.
She oversees all of Disney’s entertainment and news TV properties worldwide, and under her leadership they have seen tremendous growth.
The Disney Channel, now available on basic cable in 89 million American households, has quintupled its subscriber base with its mix of acquired and original programming, including smash hits “Hannah Montana” and “High School Musical.”
Ms. Sweeney sat down with TelevisionWeek correspondent Hillary Atkin to talk about some of Disney-ABC’s newest initiatives.
TelevisionWeek: Congratulations on winning the Vanguard Award for distinguished leadership. That’s quite an honor. Part of the leadership aspect of the award recognizes the exponential growth of the networks. What do you attribute this to?
Anne Sweeney: You know, very honestly, my team. To get a leadership award is really not about me as a sole employee; it’s really about the great strength of the people who run the many businesses inside the Disney ABC Television Group.
TVWeek: What has been your strategy in leveraging the brand across various platforms, and how have you adapted it to the audience’s needs?
Ms. Sweeney: Well, there have been a couple of strategies, starting with hiring the smartest people I can find to run these great brands and then letting them do their work. The second is really working constantly to understand the changing needs of our audience. And I’ve always believed that the closer we are to our audience, the better and stronger and more relevant our brands will be.
TVWeek: What are some of the ways that you feel that you’ve gotten closer to the audience?
Ms. Sweeney: I feel that we really began to understand the advantages of digital media early on, and we’re very experimental. We stepped out first with the iTunes deal, first with ABC.com streaming our shows, DisneyChannel.com, and all the while conducted research with our audience to make sure that this wasn’t just a great bold experiment, but this made viewing our television shows or interacting with our brands more enjoyable for them. We announced earlier this year that ABC and our broadcast affiliates had come to an arrangement on ad-supported VOD. And that happened because we engaged in a test with Cox Communications back in the fall and put several of our shows into their VOD offering because they had disabled their fast-forward. We did research during the test and found that consumers felt that getting their shows for free with advertising was an excellent deal. We also found out that the recall of the advertising was very, very high. So this was a win for the consumer, it was a win for the advertiser, certainly a win for our shows, and a win actually where broadcast and cable had come together in a very smart and meaningful way to the good of both businesses.
TVWeek: Based upon that test in Orange County, Calif., what are your plans for rolling out these VOD deals nationwide?
Ms. Sweeney: Well, we will be rolling out as Cox rolls out, and then we will be working with other cable operators who also agree to supply VOD with fast-forward disabled.
TVWeek: Let’s talk about Disney’s international expansion and the philosophy of global thinking at your corporate headquarters.
Ms. Sweeney: Our feeling for many, many years, pre-dating my coming to the company, was that Disney has always been a global brand, really because of its characters and the stories they tell. And Disney Channel started to travel around the world probably about 20 years ago, and has expanded tremendously over the last 10 years. While the first step traditionally was selling our programming into a market, the second became launching a programming block of several Disney shows. The third was launching a Disney Channel, but I think we’ve gotten to the most exciting step to date, which is creating true creative engines inside the channels outside of the U.S.—in London, in Buenos Aires, in Japan—and creating content that is local, but can also travel to other countries. I don’t know if you’ve heard about, and I’m going to mangle the pronunciation, but “Quelli dell’intervallo,” which is a short-form series that means “Between the Bells,” that space for kids in between classes. That’s a series that was created by Disney Channel in Italy. Rich Ross [president, Disney Channels Worldwide] loved it, and started to talk to the other general managers of the Disney Channels around the world, and they have adopted the format, put in their own actors, their own talent that is known to their audience, and it really has become yet another wonderful launch pad for Disney Channel talent.
TVWeek: I understand you have localized a lot of your shows as well, using the same content and the same sort of concept as you just mentioned. What has the response been in the marketplace?
Ms. Sweeney: That’s true, we did it with “High School Musical” in Latin America, and actually had a show that was created to cast some of the roles in the movie that we were doing. So we’re doing it with “High School Musical.” We’re actually doing it with “Desperate Housewives” and “Grey’s Anatomy” as well. There is a version of “Desperate Housewives” that was created for Argentina, we have another one in Brazil, we have one in Mexico, and we have a version that airs on Univision here in the United States. And “Ugly Betty,” of course, is a format that we bought that was a Colombian telenovela. So it really is a matter of looking at international as a two-way street, not solely an export business.
TVWeek: A few years ago, I think you would agree that ABC Family was really all but dead and people were still ridiculing Michael Eisner for paying so much for it. What has been the strategy that’s resulted in a huge turnaround for that channel?
Ms. Sweeney: That really is a focus on an audience that we started to see emerging through our research, which are now called the “Millennial Generation.” These are the kids who grew up with multiple technologies, who multitasked from a very early age and really don’t remember life without many technologies being a part of it on a day-to-day basis. And what Paul Lee [president, ABC Family] and his team have done so effectively is to look hard at that audience and figure out the kind of storytelling, the kind of digital media and all of the components that are appealing to this crowd. I think they’ve done a wonderful job with their original productions, with “Greek,” with “Kyle XY”; before that, [with] “Wildfire,” and certainly some of the shows that they have coming up for launch.
TVWeek: Tell us about the cross-platform worldwide rollout of “Camp Rock.”
Ms. Sweeney: That is, I think, the most fun we have had so far as a group. Of the many things I’ve seen our team do together, whether it was a reversioning of a show or the launch of “High School Musical,” “Camp Rock” is probably the best example of the power of our portfolio. We’re going to be launching it starring, hello, the Jonas Brothers, and the very wonderful Demi Lovato on Friday, June 20, on Disney Channel. It will air as part of the “Wonderful World of Disney” on June 21. Then it will move to ABC Family on Sunday, and on Monday it will be streamed exclusively on Disney.com. Now these are all platforms that we know our audience is in and out of on a daily basis. And in the past, Disney Channel would launch the movie and then run it again, and then several more times during the weekend. What they did was to reach out to their partners in the group and figure out a cross-platform strategy. We believe that we are reaching not only our audience but we’re providing real touch points for our advertisers.
TVWeek: Did you predict the unprecedented success of “Hannah Montana” and “High School Musical?”
Ms. Sweeney: I wish I had, because that would make me a genius, but no. [laughs]. We truly felt we had something special, but we had absolutely no idea how it would scale.
TVWeek: What are your plans for new platforms, new venues, for any of the classic Disney characters that are so well-known and loved?
Ms. Sweeney: Well, we launched “My Friends Tigger and Pooh,” we launched “Mickey Mouse Club House,” we have “Stitch!” being produced in Japan. And the “My Friends Tigger & Pooh” and “Mickey Mouse Club House” are both CGI series, which is a new take for these beloved characters.
TVWeek: What other initiatives do you have in the works for this year?
Ms. Sweeney: We have “The Suite Life of Zach & Cody” coming back with a new life aboard a ship, so the Sprouse twins will be back; we have some Disney Channel movies coming out; “Cheetah Girls 3 in India” is extraordinarily beautiful, with a song, “One World,” that will absolutely knock you out of your chair. And that’s a wonderful franchise for the company. ABC Family has “Samurai Girls” coming out this summer. SoapNet.com is beautiful. They’ve totally redone their site, based on a lot of homework they did with their audience. But I think what they’ve done is extraordinary.

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