Peter Rice ousted as Disney TV chief in major shake-up

Three men and two woman stand in front of the Hulu logo on a wall.
Peter Rice, left, Amanda Seyfried, Naveen Andrews, Dana Walden and Kareem Daniel attend the premiere of Hulu’s “The Dropout” on Feb. 24 at the DGA Theater Complex in Los Angeles.
(Amy Sussman / Getty Images)

Peter Rice, the chairman of Walt Disney Co.’s TV content division, has been fired from the Burbank-based entertainment giant in a move sure to rock Hollywood.

Rice has been replaced by his top lieutenant, Dana Walden, who was previously head of entertainment at Walt Disney Television, Disney said Thursday. The change takes effect immediately.

Rice, a widely admired TV veteran, was dismissed over issues of “cultural fit,” according to people familiar with the matter who were not authorized to comment.

Walden, who like Rice joined Disney three years ago as part of the acquisition of 21st Century Fox assets, becomes chair of Disney General Entertainment Content, the division responsible for programming from ABC, Disney Television Studios, Freeform, FX, National Geographic Content and other brands. Walden’s portfolio will also include ABC News and content made for streaming channels such as Hulu.

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“Dana is a dynamic, collaborative leader and cultural force who in just three years has transformed our television business into a content powerhouse that consistently delivers the entertainment audiences crave,” Disney Chief Executive Bob Chapek said in an email to staff announcing the decision.

“Dana is one of the most seasoned and respected executives in the business, and her well-earned reputation for championing creative talent and developing programming that captures the cultural zeitgeist has resulted in hit after hit for us.”

The move also removes an executive widely seen as a potential threat to Chapek’s leadership.

Rice, a former 21st Century Fox executive who excelled in the hardscrabble culture of Rupert Murdoch’s entertainment empire, was speculated as a possible successor to Chapek during a rocky period for the company. Even before Chapek’s ascension, Rice was frequently mentioned, along with Kevin Mayer, as someone who could take over for Bob Iger.

The entertainment industry had been abuzz over Chapek’s handling of the political firestorm sparked by opposition to Florida’s Parental Rights in Education law, which LGBTQ advocates and Disney employees see as anti-gay. Gov. Ron DeSantis bashed the company as a “woke” corporation, and Florida’s Legislature voted to strip Disney of its special self-governing privileges in the area that encompasses Walt Disney World Resort.

Disney stock has been struggling, along with that of many other companies, amid fears of an economic recession and worries about the state of the streaming business, which Chapek has made Disney’s top priority. Disney+, the company’s app that competes with Netflix, recently reached 137.7 million subscribers, but some analysts doubt the service can hit its 230-million member goal by 2024.

The combination of factors led some industry observers to question whether Chapek’s tenure at the top of the company was in jeopardy.

But Disney’s chairman, Susan Arnold, signaled support for Chapek in a Thursday statement.

“The strength of The Walt Disney Company’s businesses coming out of the pandemic is a testament to Bob’s leadership and vision for the company’s future,” Arnold said. “In this important time of business growth and transformation, we are committed to keeping Disney on the successful path it is on today, and Bob and his leadership team have the support and confidence of the Board.”

Rice’s ouster is the latest shake-up for Disney. Disney’s top communications executive, Geoff Morrell, was pushed out in April amid the Florida scandal.

Rice, who was blindsided by the decision to fire him, didn’t mesh well with the company’s new regime, according to insiders. Chapek took over as chief executive from Iger in 2020 and reorganized the company, separating content businesses from decisions about distribution, which ruffled feathers within the organization, especially among high-powered executives used to having relative autonomy.

Distribution decisions — whether to send shows to Disney’s traditional channels or put them on streaming services — were handed to Kareem Daniel, who runs a division called Disney Media & Entertainment Distribution. The reorganization also took financial decisions away from the programmers, including Rice, and placed that power with Daniel.

The structure created tensions between Rice and Daniel, a longtime Chapek deputy at Disney, according to people familiar with the matter who were not authorized to comment publicly.

Nonetheless, Disney insiders were startled by the timing of the decision, as Rice’s contract had been extended last year, and he had just been on the stage with Daniel weeks ago at the company’s upfront presentation to advertisers. Now, Disney will have to pay out Rice’s contract for the 2½ years remaining.

Chapek summoned Rice for a meeting Wednesday and told him he was fired.

In the meeting, which lasted less than 10 minutes, Chapek told Rice that he wasn’t “a good fit” and that Chapek wanted his own person to run the team.

In Walden, Chapek felt he had an executive who not only has the talent but also the collaborative nature to run a massive creative organization.

Chapek also wanted to simplify a structure he’d inherited when taking the reins at Disney, in which television content was governed by two high-profile executives, according to people familiar with the matter.

Already one of the most powerful women in Hollywood, Walden’s elevation increases her clout in a business that has long been lacking in female executive leadership.

Walden also joined Disney through the 2019 acquisition of Fox assets. Known for her talent-friendly approach and a track record of hits at Disney Television Studios, Walden has overseen the division responsible for ABC’s “Abbott Elementary” and Hulu originals “Only Murders in the Building,” “Dopesick” and “The Dropout.”