Even before finalizing the deal to buy much of 21st Century Fox, Walt Disney CEO Bob Iger has identified several top Fox executives that he wants to bring to Burbank to manage key parts of his expanding entertainment empire.
One of Rupert Murdoch’s most trusted executives, Peter Rice, who serves as president of 21st Century Fox and chief executive of the Fox Networks Group, is expected to run Disney’s Burbank-based television group, according to two people close to the company who were not authorized to speak publicly. Bristol, Conn.-based ESPN is not expected to be part of Rice’s portfolio.
The move would immediately position Rice as a potential successor to Iger, who is expected to retire at the end of 2021 after Disney’s consolidation of the Fox assets is complete.
Iger has postponed his retirement date multiple times. The closely watched search for his replacement has taken several turns, including the departure from the company of a handful of executives who were once considered potential CEO successors.
“It has lots of twists and turns, and the outcome is still unknown,” said longtime media analyst Harold Vogel. “Running this company is a giant step forward for anyone.”
While the executives headed to Disney are top players in their fields, Vogel said that it probably will take some time for a new succession plan to crystallize. In addition, Iger recently has promoted several lieutenants and Disney is noted for promoting home-grown executives.
What’s more, the Fox takeover is not expected to be complete for another year because Disney must secure regulatory approval from governments around the globe.
Disney’s proposed $71 billion purchase of the Fox assets is designed to build the entertainment company into a more muscular programming giant. But to accomplish that task, Iger recognizes that he needs an even deeper bench of executive talent — particularly in television — to compete with Netflix, Apple Inc. and Amazon.com.
Over the years, Fox executives have demonstrated their mettle in churning out culturally relevant shows on the FX network and Fox. Murdoch’s 20th Century Fox Television studios has long been one of the two most prolific television studio, along with Warner Bros., and Fox has supplied Disney-owned ABC with many of its hits, including “Modern Family.”
The British-born Rice, 52, has spent his entire 30-year career at Fox and has experience running a film studio as well as a sprawling portfolio of television assets.
Rice would replace Disney television executive Ben Sherwood, who is expected to remain in “an important role” within Disney, according to the two well-informed people. Sherwood, who previously ran ABC News has managed the Burbank television properties — ABC, Freeform and Disney Channel — for more than three years. During that time ABC has faced headwinds, including the firing of its top star Roseanne Barr in May after she posted a racist tweet.
Dana Walden — one of Hollywood’s most prominent female executives — is poised to take over the ABC television network, ABC’s television production studio and possibly the youth-oriented cable channel Freeform, according to one of the people.
Walden has managed 20th Century Fox Television studio for nearly two decades alongside Gary Newman. In 2014, the two executives also assumed control of the Fox broadcast network and gained the titles of chairmen of the Fox Television Group.
Walden is highly regarded among Hollywood’s writers, producers and talent agents, an increasingly important skill as streaming services such as Netflix and Amazon try to lure top network producers. She also was briefly courted by Amazon to run its Santa Monica-based studio, but that job went to her protege, Jennifer Salke.
Earlier this year, Fox studio lost one of its top producers, Ryan Murphy, to Netflix. Walden had developed a close working relationship with Murphy over the years and was disappointed with the move.
It was not clear Thursday whether Newman will move to Disney or stay at Fox. Another question mark is who might run the Fox broadcast network, which is staying within the Murdoch sphere and is expected to focus heavily on sports.
Murdoch’s oldest son, Lachlan Murdoch, will become chief executive of the slimmed-down Fox, which will consist of the broadcast network, Fox News Channel, Fox Business Network, two national sports cable channels and the chain of TV stations. Some had speculated that Murdoch’s youngest son, James, might be in line for a senior job at Disney but James has said he plans to pursue a different path.
Another well-respected Fox executive, John Landgraf, who serves as chief executive of FX Networks, is expected to join Disney to continue to oversee the FX channels, according to one of the sources.
None of the executives has been offered contracts, and exact roles haven’t been finalized.
“Let’s see what titles they end up getting, but they are three top-notch executives,” said Michael Pachter, media analyst with Wedbush Securities. “And I’m sure Disney has plans to exploit their skills by giving them more to work with."
Some Hollywood insiders have speculated that Landgraf also might be given responsibility for programming at streaming service Hulu. Disney will gain a 60% ownership stake in Hulu, and Iger has said more adult-oriented programming will wind up on Hulu. FX has developed its niche for edgy programming with such shows as “American Horror Story,” “Legion,” “It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia” and “Sons of Anarchy.”
Disney also is planning to launch a streaming service next year with top brands like Pixar Animation, Star Wars and Marvel comics along with traditional Disney characters such as “The Little Mermaid” and Winnie-the-Pooh.
Rice, Walden and Landgraf were not immediately available for comment. Variety first reported the news about the proposed executive shuffle.