Walt Disney Co. Chief Executive Bob Iger has solidified the leadership team for the company’s post-Fox future.
As it prepares to acquire most of Rupert Murdoch’s 21st Century Fox Inc., Disney on Monday identified the key executives who will be tasked with transforming the company’s television businesses to better compete in the digital era.
In a much-anticipated announcement, the Burbank entertainment giant said longtime Fox executive Peter Rice will run its Burbank-based television operation, including ABC. He brings with him two top lieutenants, Dana Walden and John Landgraf, to manage ABC Studios and cable network FX, respectively.
Disney’s new TV leadership team will be a blend of high-ranking Fox executives and Disney stalwarts, including Disney Channels Worldwide head Gary Marsh and ABC News President James Goldston, who will continue in their current roles. Gary Knell will continue to lead National Geographic Partners.
Ben Sherwood, who has managed the television operation for more than three years, will leave the company once the Fox transaction closes, as previously reported.
The leadership announcement, while expected, is significant. It shows Iger’s confidence that he is close to completing the $71.3-billion takeover of Fox’s entertainment assets. Iger wants his new Disney team in place as soon as foreign regulators approve the Fox transaction — endorsements that could come early next year. The U.S. Department of Justice approved the merger in June but stipulated that Fox’s 22 regional sports networks would have to be sold.
The move represents a departure from Disney’s usual practice of grooming top executives from within its ranks. Instead, Iger is entrusting critically important functions — developing new television shows and managing several TV networks — to a team of Fox executives who have spent nearly their entire careers working for Murdoch in a dramatically different corporate culture.
Rice will become chairman of Walt Disney Television and co-chairman of Disney Media Networks at the close of the acquisition. He will be in charge of the ABC Television Network, ABC Studios, the ABC television stations group, Disney Channels, youth network Freeform as well as the Fox television studios, FX Networks and its production arm and the National Geographic channels. He will report to Iger.
Walden, Landgraf, Marsh, Knell and Goldston all will report to Rice.
One of the most powerful women in entertainment, Walden has built the Fox television studios into a juggernaut. She is set to become chairman of Disney Television Studios and ABC Entertainment, in addition to running 20th Century Fox Television and Fox 21 Television Studios. She will also oversee youth-oriented cable channel Freeform.
ABC has faced headwinds in recent years. It had major hits last season with “The Good Doctor” and the comedy revival "Roseanne," but fired its namesake star Roseanne Barr this year after she posted a racist tweet. ABC last year lost its most prolific producer, Shonda Rhimes, who moved to Netflix.
Several key ABC executives — including Channing Dungey, president of ABC Entertainment; Patrick Moran, president of ABC Studios; and Tom Ascheim, president of the Freeform channel — will remain in their posts and report to Walden.
FX head Landgraf, who is widely credited with bulking up the network with such critically acclaimed and edgy programming as “Atlanta” and “Fargo,” will serve as chairman of FX Networks and FX Productions under Disney ownership.
“The strength of 21st Century Fox’s first-class management talent has always been a compelling part of this opportunity for us,” Iger said in a statement.
Disney has not announced how it will structure the Fox film business, known for franchises including “Avatar” and “X-Men.” Fox Film Vice Chair Emma Watts is expected to assume an important role at Disney overseeing Fox’s slate.
The new assignment marks the latest elevation for Rice, who serves as president of 21st Century Fox and chief executive of the Fox Networks Group. Rice, a native of Britain, has been on a fast track since Murdoch made him a top television executive in 2009 after he spent the first half of his career as a film executive, including running the specialty division Fox Searchlight. He is one of the Murdochs’ favorite executives.
Rice’s ascension puts him in a position to potentially succeed Iger when he retires in 2021. Iger has postponed his departure from the company numerous times over the years and the delays have stoked speculation over the succession plan at Disney, which has not designated an heir apparent.
Nonetheless, one of Iger’s lieutenants — Kevin Mayer, chairman of Disney’s international operations and its direct-to-consumer offerings — also is well positioned to succeed Iger. Mayer recently took over several important revenue functions and is responsible for Disney’s highly anticipated streaming service, which is expected to roll out next year.
The Fox executives deepen Iger’s bench of talent as Disney looks to better compete with technology companies such as Netflix, Amazon and Apple. Disney wanted Fox assets — including its Century City-based Fox movie and TV studios and cable channels such as FX and National Geographic — so it could have more content to bolster its streaming offerings.
Disney’s upcoming streaming service will feature such signature brands as “Star Wars,” Pixar Animation’s “Monsters, Inc.,” Marvel’s roster of superheroes and “High School Musical.”
The pending acquisition will also give Disney a 60% stake in streaming platform Hulu (Disney and Fox each own 30% of the service, while Comcast holds 30% and AT&T’s WarnerMedia owns the remaining 10%).
Disney is expected to fashion Hulu as a destination for more grown-up shows and movies from divisions including FX and Fox Searchlight.