Spring 2010

No Easy Answers

Anne Sweeney, co-chair of Disney Media Networks and president of Disney-ABC Television Group, says we live in challenging times. That’s why she’s excited to come to work every day...

Anne Sweeney1. How do you see the role of the director changing in television today?

Well, I think the role of the director in TV has certainly gotten a lot more complex. If you look at shows like Lost, Desperate Housewives or "24" you’ll see complex storytelling with a very large cast, more scenes, more locations. It’s really driven the role of the producer-director. They’ve become a very important person in the context of the production and have to manage continuity across episodes. We really feel that they’ve increased the quality of our shows. I do think it’s been a very successful trend, and see it expanding.

2. What impact do you think the financial crisis has had and will continue to have on the industry?

There has certainly been an impact on advertising, which is fuel for our business. But we’ve really taken some steps. We believe in R&D, and that’s where we have invested a tremendous amount of money and time. But we do have to figure out how we can continue to deliver high-quality television in a business environment that has gotten more and more challenging.

3.  Without naming names, a network recently ran into a problem when it tried to cut episodic programming from primetime. What do you think the future holds for episodic TV on the networks?

Obviously, we are very big believers in episodic television. And the creative community has a vested interest in strong, successful network broadcasters who can continue to pay license fees for that high-quality, scripted content. It’s certainly on us and on everyone who works with us to control costs.

4. What other issues do you see facing the industry?

DVR penetration is a challenge. It’s in roughly 35 percent of all homes today, and DVR users represent a significant percentage of network television viewership each week. And remember, we’re paid by advertisers on the commercials that are watched, so that’s a challenge to our business.

5.  The Internet and new media continue to get much of the attention in the press, but network TV still offers the largest and most immediate exposure by far. Do you see that model continuing as it is today?

I think everything is subject to change and this business will continue to evolve. But new media revenue isn’t replacing the existing or traditional media revenue. We have continued to evolve because we were losing to piracy. Hence, our deal with iTunes back in October of ’05 to be part of the iTunes Store. And also the development of ABC.com in the spring of ’06. It’s still the early days in the digital business, but it certainly is not to be compared to the revenue we derive from broadcast television.

6.  You’ve said that seeing the 2005 season finale of Desperate Housewives picked up on BitTorrent minutes after it aired on the network opened your eyes to the threat of Internet piracy. How serious is the problem?

Well, it’s a very serious problem. The network and the entire Walt Disney Company is committed to fighting it. And we’re very fortunate to be joined in these efforts by the DGA, SAG, AFTRA, and IATSE. It’s important to us that everyone recognizes what a threat this is to our business.

7.  What do you think can be done in a practical way?

Well those are the things that the Piracy Police, as we affectionately call them here at Disney, are brainstorming about. For instance, technology that helps us identify copies or collapsing international windows. You’ll notice that Lost is pretty much day and date around the world. In the old days — and by old days I mean just a few years ago — there was potentially a six- to twelve-month delay between when an episode aired in the U.S. and when it aired outside of the U.S. Steve Jobs once said to me that giving viewers more opportunities to see shows is a way of keeping honest people honest. Making it available to them and putting it in an environment that’s appropriate and respectful of the show is a win for everyone.

8. You’ve mentioned that you’re seeing very fast growth in casual viewing online through large video aggregators like Hulu. Is that an area you see the network tapping in to more?

We joined Hulu last year because as we looked at what we were doing online at ABC.com, and realized the viewers of our programming on the site were almost 20 years younger than viewers watching the ABC television network. And as we were watching Hulu develop, we saw that their viewers were predominantly male, and just as young as the viewers on ABC.com. Consumers have become very excited about having content available to them more easily, whether it’s being able to buy it hours after it’s aired on the iTunes Store or being able to stream it. So we saw it as a great opportunity to increase sampling for a new audience. And it’s also there to counter the DVR effect.

9.  In the future, what do you think the relationship will be between the new media platforms and network TV?

I think we’re going to learn a lot over the next couple of years as we live with these platforms, and most importantly, as we observe consumer behavior. My kids have been my test kitchen on this and it’s been fascinating to see that they haven’t left television all together. A lot of their life is spent with their laptop, but it’s been fascinating to see them bounce back and forth. So it’ll be interesting to see how that evolves and how future generations use technology to get the stories they want to see.

10. You’re often mentioned as one of the most powerful women in the business. Yet the number of female directors, even in television, is relatively low. How can that be improved?

Let’s talk about the inspiration. I was at the DGA Awards and it was absolutely thrilling when Kathryn Bigelow and Leslie Linka Glatter [Dramatic Series] won. I’m on the board at AFI, which has a wonderful program that I hope will help educate women to become great directors. And I look at some of the programs we have here at Disney. I haven’t thought that there was sexism at work; I just think it may be inattention or not focusing on people’s potential. But certainly these awards should serve as a great wake-up call for the industry, and a call to action for all executives to keep a close eye on diversity.

10 Questions

Question and answer sessions with prominent figures outside the Guild about current creative and business issues.

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