Disney Television Chief Anne Sweeney to Depart in January

Anne Sweeney, co-chairman of Walt Disney Co.’s media networks group, will leave in January 2015 to become a television director.

Sweeney, one of the most powerful women in the entertainment business, oversees cable networks including Disney Channel and ABC Family as president of Disney/ABC Television Group, as well as the ABC broadcast network. The unit’s other co-chairman, John Skipper, is president of ESPN. A replacement for Sweeney, who’s been with Disney since 1996, wasn’t named in an e-mailed statement yesterday.

The decision allows Sweeney, 56, to depart Burbank, California-based Disney before the contest heats up to replace Chief Executive Officer Robert Iger when he retires in June 2016. Chief Financial Officer Jay Rasulo and parks division head Thomas Staggs have been mentioned frequently by analysts as leading contenders.

“There has always been a nagging voice in the back of my head pushing me to step out of the comfort zone of the executive ranks and more directly into the creative arena,” Sweeney said in a statement. “I finally listened to that voice.”

Under her direction, the Disney Channel quintupled its subscriber base. She supervised the introduction of related channels, including Disney XD, aimed at boys, and Disney Junior, targeting preschoolers. In 2005, ABC became the first network to make its shows available at Apple Inc.’s iTunes store.

Investor Uncertainty

While her departure doesn’t change the race for CEO, it creates uncertainty for investors until a replacement is identified, according to Laura Martin, an analyst at Needham & Co. in Los Angeles.

“It’s a sad day when we lose a senior woman in the media business,” Martin said in a telephone interview. “Men continue to dominate this industry even though half of the consumers are women.”

Like other broadcast networks, ABC has struggled with declining viewership of traditional television as consumers turn to cable TV and Web-based options such as Netflix Inc.

For the television season that started in September, ABC is averaging 7.39 million viewers in prime-time, a decline of 5.9 percent from a year earlier. In the advertiser-targeted group ages 18 to 49, ABC is in last place, down 8.9 percent to 2.65 million viewers.

‘Constructive Impact’

“ABC TV, in terms of its ratings, has had its ups and downs,” said Nomura Securities analyst Anthony DiClemente, “but she’s definitely had a constructive impact on the company.” He has a buy rating on the stock.

Disney fell 1.1 percent to $81.05 at the close in New York. The shares have increased 41 percent in the past year.

The media networks division, led by ESPN and the Disney-branded channels, is Disney’s largest, generating $6.82 billion in operating income, 64 percent of the company’s total, in the most recent fiscal year.

“Anne Sweeney leaves Disney, the most responsible for the success of the Disney Channel, practically the founder,” former Chairman and CEO Michael Eisner said on Twitter.com yesterday.

In an interview with the Hollywood Reporter, Sweeney said she wasn’t interested in the CEO job and hadn’t discussed it with the board. She said she wants to be closer to the creative process.

Iger told the publication he’s looking internally for a replacement for Sweeney, who spent 12 years at Viacom Inc.’s Nickelodeon network. He said in the statement he looks forward to her directing a future Disney show.

While the timing was surprising, “I totally understood that Anne hungered for an opportunity connected to the creative side,” Rich Ross, who worked with her at Nickelodeon and Disney and is now CEO of 21st Century Fox Inc.’s Shine America. “In that way, I’m not surprised.”