The most powerful woman at the
After 18 years at the Burbank entertainment giant, Anne Sweeney surprised many by saying she would step down as president of Disney/ABC Television Group by next year to work on the creative side as a television director.
Her successor must navigate a business in transition and steer the company's
And Disney's networks, like all traditional television outlets, face an onslaught of competition and new online rivals, including
Sweeney's planned departure also shrinks the already small number of top female executives in Hollywood. Among women who run large entertainment organizations, Sweeney had few peers — among them Universal's Donna Langley,
Sweeney, who worked as an ABC page as a college student, said she began contract discussions with Disney Chairman and Chief Executive Robert
"The one thing that kept banging at the back of my brain is that I've loved the creative process but I've never really been part of it," Sweeney, 56, said Tuesday. "If not now, when?"
Some Hollywood insiders speculated that Sweeney decided to step down after it became apparent she would not be named to succeed Iger, who plans to exit in June 2016.
Sweeney waved off that suggestion, saying she was not gunning for the top job.
"Other people wanted it for me, but I didn't want it," she said.
Iger is expected to name a successor to Sweeney in the next few weeks to ensure a smooth handoff as ABC enters the important period of TV pilot selection and advertising sales for the new TV season.
"Anne has been a very successful executive in our senior ranks," Iger said in a statement. "Over the years she grew our
Iger must now replace Disney's only female head of a business unit. The company's other five division heads are Walt Disney Parks and Resorts Chairman Thomas Staggs, Disney Interactive President James Pitaro,
Staggs and Disney Chief Financial Officer James Rasulo are considered the leading contenders for Iger's job.
Sweeney's empire includes ABC and cable channels ABC Family, Disney Channel and Disney Junior, as well as Disney's stake in the A&E Networks. (The lucrative ESPN networks are managed separately.) She first disclosed her resignation in an interview with the Hollywood Reporter.
Known for her steely resolve, her spotless desk and her disciplined morning regimen of swimming laps in her pool, the Harvard-educated Sweeney started her executive career at
Sweeney is credited with building Disney Channel into a worldwide juggernaut in children's programming, revitalizing the ABC Family channel, and providing a steady hand at ABC amid a tumultuous period at the network and the entire broadcast industry.
Sweeney has played a leading role in turning children's fare, soapy prime-time dramas and mismatched families — think "High School Musical,"
The TV networks that Sweeney has overseen during the last 10 years have consistently portrayed some of the most compelling female characters in television. ABC also has won points for its efforts in diversity by adding African Americans, Latinos and gays to TV projects and in the executive suites.
Perhaps her greatest accomplishment was turning what was a middling cable channel that ran old shows and educational fare into a global revenue engine, with 110 Disney Channels worldwide, reaching 850 million homes. The mother of two understood the importance of early childhood education and plot lines for elementary schoolchildren. Sweeney decided to refocus the cable channel on "tween" viewers, those between the ages of 9 and 14.
Disney Channel produced multiple squeaky-clean hits — creating "tween" idols such as
Disney Channel has been the No. 1 network, among children aged 6 to 14, for nearly three years.
"What Anne built was a cohesive television behemoth that stood on the shoulders of its creative content," said Rich Ross, the former Disney Channel president who is now chief executive of the production firm Shine America. After Disney in 2002 paid $5 billion to buy the threadbare Family Channel, Sweeney installed new management and zeroed in on changing youth tastes, allowing the network to surpass
She inherited ABC in 2004, a few months before the network exploded with "Desperate Housewives,"
At ABC News, Sweeney gave the green light to install Diane Sawyer as "World News" anchor and
Sweeney also was quick to embrace technological changes that have roiled the entertainment industry.
In 2005, Disney and ABC were the first to reach an agreement with
"Our approach to the digital age was fast, smart and incredibly consumer-focused," Sweeney said. "That is a source of great pride."
"I've had the most wonderful life at Disney," she added. "But I'm excited about the future. I truly want to step out of my comfort zone."
Times staff writers Dawn C. Chmielewski, Joe Flint and Daniel Miller contributed to this report.