Interview Date: Wednesday October 04, 2000
Interview Location: Burbank, CA
Interviewer: Elizabeth Glass
Collection: Hauser Collection
GLASS: This is Elisabeth Glass at the Disney Channel in Burbank, California on October 4, 2000. Today we’re interviewing Anne Sweeney, the President of ABC Cable Networks and President of the Disney Channel Worldwide. This oral history is made possible by a gift from The Hauser Foundation. Anne, can you tell us a little bit about your background, where you were born and your experiences growing up?
SWEENEY: Sure. I was born in a small town in the Hudson Valley – Hudson, New York – in 1957 and my parents were… my father was the principal of the junior high school there and my mother was an elementary school teacher and shortly after I was born they relocated to Kingston, New York, which was a much larger town, probably somewhere between 25,000 and 28,000 people. I grew up in Kingston; I attended John A. Coleman Catholic High School, then went to the College of New Rochelle where I received my bachelors degree and then to Harvard University Graduate School of Education where I got my masters degree in education.
GLASS: After you had your master’s degree in education, what were your career choices at that time?
SWEENEY: Well, I went to Harvard really for a couple of reasons. While I was at the College of New Rochelle, I became very interested in kids and television and really kids, first and foremost, and when I started at CNR I wanted to be a teacher and in my first year you had to take Psych 101, or Child Psych 101, and shortly after that started, the teacher informed us that we would have to work in a child study lab a couple of days a week and it was really through that experience in the child study lab that I discovered that teaching was very, very difficult and I just didn’t see myself responsible for teaching kids how to read. I remember when I told my parents I was so afraid that they’d say, “No, no, no. Get over your fears, you can do it.” Because it was in a sense the family business, and instead they said, “Thank God you found out now. What is it you want to do?” And I didn’t know immediately, I just knew that it was something for kids, and in my senior year of college, a friend of mine in the theater group had been a page at ABC and introduced me to the people who were hiring and at that point I fell head over heels in love with television. I didn’t think there was any greater job in the world than being a page at ABC, and being a page meant that I wore a navy blue blazer and a gray skirt and I escorted guests and I answered the phone and I ran for coffee and all of the lower level tasks but all of the upper level access to how television is actually made and I really cut my teeth as a page for Good Morning, America, on the local news, at the radio group at the desk, and just the world opened up to me. So as I was completing my senior year of college, I felt that I still had a piece missing and that was a deeper understanding of how kids learned and I’d heard about a program at the Ed. School at Harvard that had some of the folks who had started Sesame Street and I went up over Christmas break that year and spoke to Gerry Lessor, who had been one of the key people on the team with Joan Gantz-Cooney and Sam Gibbons and Dave Connell and it just connected for me and I felt that the Ed. School would be that piece that I was missing. While I was at the Ed. School – I think when I started, I believed I would end up at Children’s Television Workshop, not only because my teachers had a connection but because I had been an intern there, for Sesame Street and Electric Company Magazine, my senior year. But as the year wore on, I read about this new cable service called Nickelodeon that had started in Columbus, Ohio, and this was now January of 1980 and Nickelodeon had started in April of 1979. And in reading about this I became really curious about what a full television channel devoted to kids programming would be and after graduation, I did a short stint at a production house in New York that eventually folded and during that time came in contact with Sandy Cavanaugh and Gerry Laybourne, who were at Nickelodeon. Sandy was the director of programming and Gerry was the manager of acquisitions and I went in to interview for a secretarial job and to my surprise there were three people waiting for me in the office and they all interviewed me and at the end of this meeting, one of the people said – they each had a secretarial job open – and at the end of the meeting, one of them said, “If you could pick any job here,” meaning the other secretarial jobs for the other people, “whose job would you pick?” And I said, “Well, I would pick Gerry’s, because I believe I’m good at evaluating programming, I believe I understand kids. I certainly have spent a good amount of time in my educational career trying to do that.” And as we were walking out she said, “The health plan is lousy.” So I didn’t know if that I had gotten the job or I shouldn’t feel badly about not getting the job, but I did get the job and I started at Nickelodeon in January of 1981 and there were 10 of us and we were part of a company that was still fairly new that was called Warner Amex Satellite Entertainment Company, WASEC, and we were the programming arm. And WACI, Warner Amex Cable, was the cable arm, the people who were going out and getting the franchises in the city and building the cable systems.
GLASS: And at the time, Nickelodeon was the only channel in cable devoted to children.
SWEENEY: Yes. Nickelodeon was the only channel devoted to kids and it was in 2 million homes.
GLASS: It’s had tremendous growth. Can you talk about the experience of helping to grow Nickelodeon into the powerhouse it is today?
SWEENEY: I think the experience of growing Nickelodeon really became the way I looked at… it formed the way I looked at my career going forward and it formed the way I looked at the cable industry. We didn’t know what we didn’t know; we just knew we didn’t want to do it the way everyone else had done it. And at that point, toy driven animation was hugely popular and the afternoon blocks on syndicated television and the network Saturday mornings were the powerhouses in children’s television and because we didn’t want to be like everyone else, it probably took a little bit longer than any of us thought it would. But it was a time of great experimentation, there was a lot of risk taking; we were making it up as we went along and we knew that was just fine and we were never daunted by the challenge of it because I think in our hearts, and I’m speaking for a very large group of people, we did believe in our own success and we did believe that there was a place for a channel devoted to kids, or a channel devoted to music, or a channel devoted to something else.
GLASS: What jobs did you have while at Nickelodeon?
SWEENEY: I had a different job just about every year of the 12 ½ years I was at Nickelodeon. I was a secretary for a year; I became a coordinator of acquisitions and then a manager and then we started taking commercials, so I added program standards to my piece of the pie. I then became a director of acquisitions and then we were continuing to launch new channels, we launched Nick at Nite and then we launched a comedy channel called Ha! The Television Comedy Network, at the same time HBO was launching The Comedy Channel and at that point I started buying under the MTV Networks banner and bought an enormous amount of programming in a very short space of time for the April launch of this channel, which in the end did merge with the HBO channel, but the merger provided a great benefit to the MTV Networks group, in that a lot of the programming that had been acquired had been acquired for the entire group and easily migrated to Nick at Nite and really grew Nick at Nite faster than we had originally anticipated and Comedy Central was born out of that merger and became a channel that is still co-owned by the two companies.
GLASS: You’ve been involved in the early stages of Nickelodeon and when you left Nickelodeon you went over to FX. Here at Disney you are overseeing Disney and Toon Disney and Soap Net. Can you talk about what is involved in launching a new cable network from soup to nuts?
SWEENEY: Do you have a week? I think the most important thing always is there a need or desire for this in the marketplace. And by marketplace I really mean the people watching television; it really does begin and end there and doing that homework in the very early days and being very clear about what’s missing, and as clear about what it is your company has to bring to the party, I think are really the two essential elements. It isn’t really enough to have a good idea that you are in love with. It has to be a good idea for 30-40+ million people out there. Starting with understanding the audience really helps you form the kind of channel and Soap Net is the most recent example of that. Soap Net was born out of the fact that soap operas are still a very healthy genre but suffering from a lifestyle change with its core viewers and we took this idea of really making it easier for people to access the shows that they love out into a test situation and we tested two different formats for the channel and very quickly learned which one would work, and then did a great amount of homework with this group of people who would be watching soaps later the same day on what additional needs they had. What else did they want; what else did they want to know? And that’s how we slowly put together the pieces that became Soap Net. That’s the creative process. Probably equally creative is getting the deal done with cable operators and the DTH businesses and both making sure that this commercial venture works for both parties and that something like a Soap Net is perceived to be valuable. And again, that’s where all of the early research comes to play: being able to demonstrate that this is something that is valuable to the customers of the cable operators, who are also our audience, is key.
GLASS: Then what about the marketing side of that?
SWEENEY: The marketing side is two-fold. The marketing side is both to your community of affiliates as it is to the consumer and really working hand in hand with the operators and with Direct TV and Echo Star to make sure that they have all the ammunition they need to use Soap Net or any other service in a way that benefits their business and hand-in-hand with that is helping the consumer find it and helping the consumer use it. In the case of Soap Net, it is very user friendly.
GLASS: In your career, you’ve had a number of very high-profile mentors, Gerry Laybourne and Rupert Murdoch. Can you talk about those experiences a little bit?
SWEENEY: Sure. I think I’ve been very fortunate to work not only with very talented people, but in very diverse companies and I think the early lessons of Nickelodeon and WASEC were extremely valuable in my personal and professional growth. That’s where I became very comfortable with taking chances and with thinking outside of the box and I think moving on to News Corp. and Fox took that up to a new level. That was just “Wild West” and getting out there with big ideas and really forging ahead and coming to Disney I’ve been fortunate yet again. I feel like a walking casebook study in brands at this point, having worked for three of the best known. Coming to Disney was a great lesson in working with something that had probably more history than the other two companies combined and the Disney brand, at first, was quite daunting to me but I remembered my early lessons from Nick and from Fox and it’s really “be not afraid.” This is a brand that is loved and cherished but this is a brand that needs to continue to grow and be important and be contemporary to its viewers, ages 2 to 102. I think it was really that early training that helped me embrace my new job and this big brand in a way that’s been very successful
GLASS: With so many cable channels out there today that are products of very strongly branded companies, do you think it’s possible to launch a new channel that isn’t already branded?
SWEENEY: I think it is possible to launch a channel that isn’t branded, but I think you need to be extraordinarily clear on what it is that channel is going to do for people and what is missing in the marketplace and I can look at FX as a great example. FX was an idea of Rupert’s, not the name certainly, that came a little bit later, but Rupert had a great desire to bring live television into cable. He believed that television was attractive because it was immediate and it was fresh and it was happening as you watched it and we launched with seven hours of original programming every single day. We took over a building on 5th Avenue in the twenties and outfitted an entire floor as an apartment: grids on the ceilings, we had a lot of handheld cameras following people around. We started with a morning show, we had a news show, we had a collectibles show, we had a music show, we had a show at the end of the day called Back Chat, which was basically, tell me what you’re thinking and tell me about your day. We did the first on-air, on-line auction; we auctioned off X-Files memorabilia and we were very experimental and what we learned very quickly was that the public didn’t know it needed live. They, the viewers, felt that live was important for news and sports, but entertainment, maybe not so much. The collectibles show though probably was a great lesson in early E-Bay, and we’ve seen many copies of that show certainly since. The idea of launching new personalities, Jeff Probst was one of our personalities who’s gone on to Survivor, Tom Bergeron, who’s gone on to Hollywood Squares, Laurie Hibberd, who’s guested on Good Morning, America and other shows, I think the great beauty of it was the careers that it launched for many people, including myself. But again, the lesson was understanding what the public wanted and what the public needed and in the end it wasn’t seven hours of live television everyday.
GLASS: When you’re faced with that, when you realize that they don’t want seven hours of live television, how do you turn the ship around?
SWEENEY: Well, you get very honest very quickly and start to make some moves that get you a little bit closer to what the audience needs and our moves at that time were really more toward interactivity, but I stayed three years and didn’t get to see it through but I think the collectibles show was probably the greatest example of where the future was going and where the Internet would play in this phase with consumers.
GLASS: When you left FX, you came to Disney. Can you tell us about your years at Disney?
SWEENEY: There have been four and a half years at Disney; I was hired by Gerry Laybourne, who came over as head of the group and then replaced her as head of the group two years later. The first days at Disney were really pretty amazing to me. I’d spent my whole life in basic cable and had never worked for a pay business and at that point Disney was doing what they called a hybrid model. They were basic some places and they were pay in others but there was an underlying desire here to take the Disney Channel basic, fully basic, and I took that as one of the goals that I had to accomplish. It’s one thing to have a basic business strategy, but it’s another thing to have a programming schedule that is really more of a pay network than basic. So, the second goal became to move the programming strategy and the business strategy together and have them marching down the same street and then there was the issue of this big brand and how it stays fresh and relevant and connected to its audience. There were a series of programming and marketing moves that we used and continue to use. That’s never a goal… I always feel that it’s a goal that has to stay a goal. It’s not something anyone can ever say, oh, we’ve done that. Resting on your laurels just doesn’t work in television and some of those moves included doing Disney Channel original movies. Really kid driven family entertainment that kids could watch, parents could come into the room, feel totally comfortable watching and feel engaged and they’ve been stories about kids facing the issues that 9 to 14 year olds face. It’s everything from divorce and remarriage to relocating to the problems of puberty, things that are very real to kids, expressed sometimes in very fanciful ways, but expressed in something that kids can lock into and feel is really more about their lives. The movies have helped, a lot of the off-air work that we’ve done has resonated as well, in particular Zoog Disney. We discovered, probably four years ago, in watching kids that when they got home from school, it was homework, snack, turn on the television and turn on the computer and chatting to their friends while they watched television, chatting to their friends about what they were watching on television and these communities that were forming and this interactivity in a very primitive stage that was starting to unfold. So we started to experiment; we came up with a group of characters called the Zoogs, only because it was a fun sound to our ears and to kids who we talked to in focus groups and we created a mythical space called the Zether and the Zether was a space between your computer and your television set and the Zoogs move comfortably between the two mediums, just like kids do and we had kids register, we e-mailed their parents to gain permission and then they engaged in the games and the polls and the chats that were all related to a programming block on the channel called Zoog Disney. Well, today, over 2 million registered users later and a block that’s now become a three day weekend idea, the idea has really taken hold with kids and I think one of the most wonderful, yet surprising results is that they average age of our Zoog Internet users is 14 and it’s interesting to me because the Disney brand is often criticized for being young when in fact it isn’t, when in fact it is embracing the future and what’s going on in kids’ lives.
GLASS: You have been able to capture these children who are now 14 at a younger age and have brought them to this point and brought them to the Internet. Do you have plans to develop other channels to keep that audience that you’ve been nurturing over the years?
SWEENEY: We’ve talked about a number of ideas and again, it plays back to what makes sense. If you’re talking to teenagers, what is it that they’re interested in, what is it that you would program, and I don’t have those answers. I think there is a channel for Disney to do for pre-schoolers and their parents. Our feeling about little kids and their parents, I think, is different than other companies out there. We really are focused on the whole life of the child. That includes their family and I think that’s a characteristic that distinguished Disney really every step of the way.
GLASS: What are your plans for interactivity on the channel itself?
SWEENEY: Well, Zoog Disney is really our first foray into… it’s our very primitive form of interactivity but as the cable boxes evolve, as technology evolves, we feel that we’re well positioned to embrace new technology and we’re ready to let it take us to places we’re anxious to get to.
GLASS: As part of your responsibility as president of the ABC Cable Networks Group, you also have oversight over E!, A&E, History, Biography, and Lifetime. Can you talk about those responsibilities?
SWEENEY: Well, I can tell you it’s a wonderful group of assets run by very talented people and I love that piece of our portfolio because it really does give us the whole world of the audience. Carole Black is our CEO of Lifetime and has done an extraordinary job of connecting with women and programming to women. Her public affairs initiatives are really ringing bells. I think what Lifetime has done for breast cancer research and support of women with breast cancer and getting women to find out and be checked is phenomenal, nothing short of phenomenal. Nick Davatzes is our CEO of A&E and History and A&E has always been a strong and impressive brand. Certainly Biography as a franchise is absolutely famous. I think the History Channel is probably what I go to quickly when I think of Nick and how that business developed and how quickly it grew and I really do believe that Nick Davatzes made people want to know about their history again. He made them want to reconnect with their country, want to know where they came from and where they fit in in the scheme of things. Mindy Hermann is our new CEO of E! and she is a dynamic executive, who I think will take E! to its next level. E! is just over 10 years old now and has birthed Style, their new channel, which has grown very, very quickly and again, is an idea that I think embraces not only fashion, but everything that we consider to be style, all of the things that we live with, all of the things that we do. I think that’ll be a winner.
GLASS: In your view, what have been some of the pivotal issues in cable television in the last twenty years?
SWEENEY: Oh, I think there have been a few. I think starting with the franchise battles of the early ’80s and watching cities choose who would wire them and who would provide for them. I think the regulation in the early ’90s was certainly a pivotal point and within the last couple of years, I think all of the consolidation. Those, to me, are the three biggest markers in the last twenty years.
GLASS: Let’s talk about consolidation. How do you see that as beneficial in the long run to consumers?
SWEENEY: I think in the long run, it probably is. I think it’s probably a better organization for the consumer and for the country. As a programmer it’s very difficult and certainly in Disney’s unique position and your past of being pay and basic, it was likely in some markets that the cable operator who owned half the market would have Disney as pay and a cable operator who owned the other half of the market would have Disney as basic and that’s a very confusing message, both for a marketplace to understand, a consumer to understand and a programmer to try and market to.
GLASS: Disney Channel is the only channel that I can think of that has migrated from pay to full basic. Were you able to do that so successfully because you own so much of your own programming or did you have battles with program providers when you did the migration?
SWEENEY: We didn’t really have battles with program providers. We’ve been clear for the last nine or ten years that this is how the business strategy of the channel was continuing to evolved and for the last four years, I’ve treated the business as a basic cable business and that’s informed the kinds of deals we’ve done with suppliers. I never tried to… you can’t play it both ways. You have to be one or the other and we’ve chosen the basic route.
GLASS: In your vision, what’s next for cable television?
SWEENEY: I keep hoping that it’s true interactivity. I keep hoping that we are headed into a world where consumers have a more personal experience with television than they have had in the past.
GLASS: You also have a family and how have you been able to balance your family with your career?
SWEENEY: Well, I’ve been very fortunate for a couple of reasons. I’ve always worked in places where my job made sense to my kids. Certainly at Nickelodeon there was a strange kind of symmetry to it, to be working in children’s television and thinking about kids and their needs and desires and their entertainment every day and going home and doing a far more personal version of that. My kids have always had a mother who worked; my husband has always had a wife who worked and we’ve been very cognizant of this two career family that we have created and have both made sacrifices and choices that have really been for the benefit of the family, including moving to California, which we perceive to be a good thing for ourselves and our kids.
GLASS: What do you feel that some of the biggest issues are in television today, from a family viewing point of view?
SWEENEY: I think parents have always needed help in understanding how kids watch television and to talk about what kids see on television and encouraging them to sit down with their kids. I also think that people overall need help with technology and how to deal with all of these forces that are now coming into your home. When I grew up, we had three big broadcast networks and a couple of local stations that came from the Albany, Troy, Schenectady area and on a clear day we would get channel 13 out of New York and I grew up with cable. I grew up with a tower in the Hudson Valley with cable lines that ran into homes. I remember though when pay television started and movie channels started to come in and what a phenomenon it was and then followed very swiftly by video games. Pac Man, and I can’t even remember the name of it now, but it was the ball that bounced up against those blocks and slowly ate away at the blocks on the top of the screen, but I remember when all of this was happening. It suddenly felt like there were so many things to do, so many choices, and life wasn’t just about school and a limited amount of television and ballet and piano and art and all of the other things. So I think the thing that parents probably need the most help on is not being crowded by too many activities or too much television.
GLASS: How do you feel about ratings versus what is good solid programming for children? Do you think that most programmers today are really after the ratings more than they are delivering quality programming?
SWEENEY: It depends. At Disney Channel we are not an ad supported network, but we care deeply about how contemporary and relevant our programming is. We care very much that kids are watching it. We care that we are connecting with kids and families. I do think, though, that a lot of times I see people compromise their audiences by going for ratings because ratings drive advertising dollars.
GLASS: You’ve taken on the responsibility of being president of the Disney Channels worldwide. What does that entail?
SWEENEY: It’s so exciting. It entails a lot. It’s first and foremost a focus on our brand and insuring for the company that we are delivering on the promises that we make to kids and families and that we are maintaining not only their trust, but a strong and very vibrant relationship with them. Our businesses – we’re in 13 territories with channels and 45 with branded blocks, usually free television and this is a massive undertaking. But it’s very exciting because it is so reminiscent of what was going on in the United States 20 years ago, watching cable operators. Some of them started well before 20 years ago, but watching cable start to take hold with consumers, watching this acceptance of technology coming into their homes, watching them start to grapple with having more than three or four channels, having to work with the consumers and the platforms on why Disney Channel is meaningful to them, what Disney Channel is about, how to explain it to them and to their children.
GLASS: Have you found that the Disney brand is pervasive in the markets you’re already in through the movies and toys and books?
SWEENEY: Disney has a very long history outside of the U.S. It’s a company that’s over 75 years old and has been distributing its movies through many countries for many years, so there is a great understanding of the brand. That will change as television becomes more pervasive.
GLASS: As American channels march off into foreign territories, do you feel it’s important to also include indigenous programming?
SWEENEY: Absolutely. Absolutely. I think the greatest mistake any American business can make is to treat the international market place as an export business. I think the greatest value you can derive from a company that is, as Disney is, international is the two way flow of information and creativity and really understanding other cultures and what’s important and being able to respond to that in a smart way.
GLASS: You’ve enjoyed 20 years of tremendous success in this industry. What advice would you give someone who’s just leaving college and looking at the opportunities of cable television, broadcast or the world of the Internet today?
SWEENEY: I’d tell them to look at it with an open mind and to walk into it as clear headed as possible and without any preconceived notions of what it is and to really approach it as – television still is a place that is a frontier and I don’t think we’ve figured it out in the last 20 years because I think the next 20 years are going to be even more exciting and we’re going to be juggling many new technologies that change the way we think about the way we make programs and change the way we have to think about our audience.
GLASS: Do you have any thoughts in summary that you’d like to leave us with?
SWEENEY: I feel very lucky. I think I’ve been so fortunate and I didn’t know it when I saw it. I just thought I was taking a great job at a really fresh young company. I had no idea where it would go. I had no idea if it would last, but what I came to appreciate about it over time was the fact that it was new everyday and for me that was probably the most important thing to learn, was that as long as it was new and fresh and as long as I could stay new and fresh in my thinking it would be a great place to work and I really think that’s been the beauty of the cable industry for me, is that it always feels like something new is about to happen and it always feels like we have so much more to learn and we can get so much closer to our audience and we can provide so much more.
GLASS: Great, thank you very much.
SWEENEY: Thank you.