Ben Sherwood has the kind of resume that could make even a high achiever jealous.
A Harvard graduate and a Rhodes scholar, Sherwood has been a reporter, producer, author and executive. On Monday, Sherwood added the title chairman to his curriculum vitae when Walt Disney Co. elevated him from president of ABC News to co-chairman of Disney Media Networks and president of the Disney/ABC Television Group. He will succeed Anne Sweeney, who is stepping down to try her hand at directing television.
In his new role, which he’ll officially assume in February 2015, the 50-year-old Sherwood will have oversight of not only ABC’s entertainment and news operations, but also the Disney Channel, ABC Family and other cable outlets, which last year accounted for more than $10 billion in revenue. The only part of Disney’s TV business that won’t be under his purview is ESPN, which is run by John Skipper, the other Disney Media Networks chairman.
Sherwood has run ABC News since late 2010 and in that time its morning program “Good Morning America” has managed to overtake NBC’s “Today” in viewers and key demographics. ABC’s “World News Tonight” and “This Week with George Stephanopoulos” also have also become more competitive.
Some media pundits have criticized “Good Morning America” for becoming too tabloid but morning shows have always walked a fine line between news and entertainment. Viewers have responded and that is what matters to Sherwood’s bosses at ABC and Disney. ABC News insiders are quick to counter that the network has won eight Emmys and three Peabodys under Sherwood’s watch.
Sherwood also learned to play well with the entertainment unit, agreeing to move “Nightline” to a later slot so “Jimmy Kimmel” could compete head-to-head with rival shows.
In an interview, Sherwood said his reporting background will hopefully help with the learning curve from news to entertainment.
“I will use the journalism skills of asking questions, digging deeply and learning fast,” he said. “Whether it’s nonfiction or fiction, the fundamentals are the same -- great characters, surprises and creativity.”
In his early 20s, Sherwood had a brief stint at the Los Angeles Times Washington and Paris bureaus. Besides writing the usual assortment of news stories, he showed a fine eye for quirky features, including a memorable 1985 Page One story about how the Parisians have risen to the challenge of a growing dog poop problem.
Wrote Sherwood: “Every morning, 80 helmeted men clad in bright green jumpsuits roll into the city on motorcycles equipped with mechanical sweepers. With orange lights flashing, the cyclists, looking more like space-age stormtroopers than sanitation workers, go about sweeping and spraying. They cover more than 1,000 miles of pavement every day, about a third of the city.”
A Los Angeles native and graduate of the exclusive Harvard-Westlake School, Sherwood’s ambition and the apparent ease to which success has come to him has also created a cottage industry of detractors. Before he was even 25 Sherwood was the subject of a vicious take-down piece by the now defunct Spy Magazine. His alleged crime? Coming from an affluent family (his father was an influential lawyer), having connections and being driven to succeed, which apparently rubbed many of his equally driven and ambitious classmates the wrong way.
The mocking has followed him as he risen up the ranks of the media industry. Soon after he took over running ABC News, the snarky website Gawker turned him into a pinata, running several blog posts that mocked Sherwood and some his literary work including “The Death and Life of Charlie St. Cloud,” which was turned into a movie starring Zac Efron.
While Sherwood has certainly led something of a charmed life, he has been willing to put himself in dangerous situations for the job. In 1992, while working with ABC News, Sherwood was part of a caravan in Sarajevo, in then-Yugoslavia, that came under attack. David Kaplan, an ABC News producer in the same caravan, was killed by a sniper. He has also earned the respect of many of his subordinates for his careful attention to their work.
Sherwood long ago developed a thick skin when it comes to his critics. In a 1986 Los Angeles Times profile of Sherwood’s family after he and his sister became the first siblings to both be named Rhodes scholars, he said he was not “reluctant to make waves” and that life is more than a popularity contest. If that meant being labeled “machiavellian” by some, Sherwood didn’t mind.
“And Machiavelli, who is widely misunderstood, said that in the long run it’s not that important to be popular because popularity is fleeting but respect is permanent,” he said.
Follow Joe Flint on Twitter @JBFlint.