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Disney/ABC television chief Anne Sweeney stepping down next January

Anne Sweeney, who has been in charge of Walt Disney Co.'s expansive Burbank-based television empire for nearly a decade, is leaving the company next January.

Sweeney, 56, who is one of the top women executives in Hollywood, helped build the Disney Channel into a juggernaut, and revitalized ABC Family. She has been a steady hand at ABC since 2004, the year the network exploded in the ratings with such hits as "Lost" and "Desperate Housewives."

On Tuesday, Sweeney announced that she would leave Disney in January to pursue a career in television directing. 

The Harvard-educated executive, who began her career at Nickelodeon and FX, joined Disney in 1996. She skillfully navigated up the corporate ladder to become one of the company's top executives. She is currently co-chair of Disney Media Networks and president of Disney/ABC Television Group, in charge of ABC, ABC Family, Disney Channel, Disney Junior and ABC News.

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“The past 18 years at Disney have been the highlight of my executive career. I’ve been a part of an amazing evolution in our business and our industry, and have achieved far more than I ever thought possible," she said in a statement.

Disney did not immediately name a successor. It has been clear for some time that Sweeney had reached her peak at Disney. Her name was rarely mentioned as a replacement for Disney Chief Executive Bob Iger, who plans to remain at the helm until June 2016.

ABC has fallen in the ratings in recent years, leading some in the industry to speculate about changes at the network.

"I am so thankful to Bob Iger for his leadership, guidance and his friendship over the years, and am grateful not only for his offer to remain with the company for many years to come, but [also] his understanding and support of my decision to make this change," Sweeney said in the statement.

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Twitter: @MegJamesLAT

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