"Seriously," David Spade says to me, "What's this story about?"
It's a hot August day in Burbank, California, and the unshaven Spade is standing in the near-empty Disney-owned studio where 8 Simple Rules is shot. When I tell him that it's a piece on Anne Sweeney, the forty-six-year-old woman who, after six successful years in charge of Disney's non-sports cable properties, was tapped last April to take over the ABC Network, Spade, who plays a character named C.J. on 8 Simple Rules, nods his head a couple of times and says, "Anne Sweeney. Anne Sweeney. Right." The onetime movie sidekick of Chris Farley, Spade has since leaving Saturday Night Live built a career playing variations on the same character—a sarcastic little guy who can hurl insults with a precision that cuts straight to people's greatest fears and insecurities, their regrets and unrealized hopes.
"Yeah," Spade continues, in his trademark whiny drawl. "Anne came over to the house one night and we fixed a couple of things in the schedule. It's cool now."
With that Spade exits stage left for lunch, leaving the show's publicist, Jeff Fordis, and me to watch the actress Katey Sagal—who spent a decade as the sexually frustrated wife on Married … With Children—rehearse a scene. 8 Simple Rules's director, James Widdoes, best known as Hoover, the well-meaning but overmatched president of Delta Tau Chi fraternity in National Lampoon's Animal House, sets up the shots, laughing hysterically at everything Sagal says.
After a moment Fordis says, "David was just kidding about Anne coming over, you know."
"I know," I say. But I can understand why Fordis worries that I might really believe that Sweeney dropped by Spade's pad one evening with a bulletin board and a six-pack to help her work out the network's fall lineup. Things at ABC have been so bad lately—its recent history of public gaffes, missed opportunities, and internal wranglings have been playing out for months in the pages of The New York Times and Variety, the Hollywood Reporter and the Los Angeles Times—that one could be forgiven for thinking, Why not? Maybe someone decided to let David Spade call the shots.
Who runs ABC at any given moment has been an ongoing trivia question for the past ten years or so. Since 1995—when Disney merged with Capital Cities/ABC in a $19 billion deal—the top job at the network has been like the post of manager of the New York Yankees in the 1980s, when George Steinbrenner fitfully hired and fired skippers almost annually, only to finish the decade without a World Series ring. As executives have come and gone, the product on the air has been inconsistent and ultimately unwatched by an American public that in the age of cable no longer has to give network television the benefit of the doubt.
At every turn during this period, it seems, ABC called for the wrong play at the wrong moment. There was the attempt to make the network into a clone of NBC, which was then achieving ratings bonanzas with Friends and Seinfeld—hip young stars sitting in apartments furnished by Ikea. There was the brief success and then the overuse of a game show—Who Wants to Be a Millionaire?—that seemed to run every night, over and over and over again, to the point where we didn't care whether or not someone won the $1 million prize or how many damn lifelines were left. And then there were the unseized moments, any one of which might have helped make ABC the broadcast juggernaut it seemed destined to be when it first gained access to the resources and power of mighty Disney: the network turned down Survivor (now a perennially top-ranked show for CBS) not once but three times; it balked at Scrubs (now a hit comedy on NBC) and CSI (now a hit franchise, with two spinoffs, on CBS), both of which, gallingly, were developed by Touchstone, Disney's in-house television production unit; and when Survivor's creator, Mark Burnett, came to ABC with The Apprentice, the network's inability to move quickly enough allowed that show, which became a huge hit last year, to land at NBC. Last season ABC finished a distant fourth in the ratings, behind NBC, CBS, and even Fox, and it is reportedly losing $250 million a year. In May, during ABC's presentation at the New York "Upfronts," where networks preview their fall schedules for advertisers, Jimmy Kimmel, the man plucked to be ABC's late-night funnyman (after ABC infamously failed to land David Letterman in 2002), characterized his own network as "the fat kids who eat paste."
"You have a network that's collapsed," says Tom Wolzien, a senior media analyst with Sanford C. Bernstein & Company, an investment and research firm. "You have a network that has not delivered to advertisers, not delivered to its affiliates, and certainly has not delivered to its shareholders at Disney."
"Nobody's watching," Wolzien continues. "Actually, 'nobody' in this context is five to six million households. It's not like they've shut down and gone home. But fixing this is a multi-year project. I tell my clients, if you like the [Disney] stock, buy it for other reasons, but ABC should not be one of them."
ABC's struggles could not have come at a worse time for the men who head its corporate parent, the Walt Disney Company. Both Michael Eisner, Disney's chief executive officer, and Bob Iger, its chief operating officer, have over the years been accused of micromanaging and second-guessing the decisions of the people they've hired, à la Steinbrenner. Last year Roy Disney, a former member of the board (and the nephew of the company's founder), tried to launch a shareholder revolt against Eisner. (Partly as a result, Eisner stepped down as chairman of the board in March, but retained his title as CEO.) More recently the company has had to fight off a hostile takeover bid from Comcast, the cable company. And in 2005 its profitable partnership with Pixar Animation, which made millions of dollars for Disney with movies such as Toy Story and Finding Nemo, will probably end—meaning that the success of ABC will be more important than ever. Within the Disney empire the pressure on Sweeney to revive ABC is enormous.
But the television environment Sweeney now confronts is tougher than what any of her predecessors faced, and perhaps tougher than anything a television executive has faced in the fifty years since the medium pervaded the American home. Even as recently as 1994 one could say that ABC was just a hit or two away from righting itself. That's no longer the case. In 1994 there were four networks—the Big Three (CBS, NBC, and ABC) plus the fledgling Fox. Today there are six: WB and UPN have sprung up alongside what are now the Big Four. And the seemingly endless proliferation of cable channels—which Sweeney herself helped foster, in her previous capacities as an executive at Nickelodeon, FX, and the Disney Channel—has both balkanized television viewership and diluted the pool of executive and on-air talent available to the networks.
And yet in handing the keys to Sweeney, Disney may very well have settled not only the network's future but also that of television itself. Certainly it can be argued that in her present role she is the second most powerful woman in Hollywood, after Sherry Lansing, the president of Paramount Communications and the chairman of Paramount's Motion Picture Group. More important, Sweeney—if the Disney higher-ups follow through on what they promised her—has power over a multitude of channels and brands that will define Disney for the next century. What does the future hold for a broadcast company when Americans are increasingly drawn to cable rather than broadcast? What, for that matter, is the future of television, now that the medium is changing in ways that nobody imagined? Mickey Mouse can't solve these problems for Disney. Michael Eisner and Bob Iger are hoping that Sweeney can.
"If they let her do her job, there's no question the network will be a success," Fred Silverman told me before I met with Sweeney. As the head of ABC's entertainment division from 1975 to 1978, Silverman steered the network to spectacular ratings with Charlie's Angels and Starsky and Hutch, among other shows. "And I think they will. If they won't let her alone, she'll leave. She won't put up with it."
"Rupert Murdoch was once quoted as saying she has a steel fist in a velvet glove," Silverman continued. "There's great resolve and strength there. You shouldn't let her appearance fool you. She knows what's wrong and what needs to be done."
Silverman's words resonate when I visit Sweeney in her sparse office on the tenth floor of the ABC building in Burbank. She is a fair, waiflike woman with dark blonde hair, and she speaks softly but with conviction. When she explains her thoughts about her job, her life, and television, it is in the patient and seemingly unflappable tone of an elementary school teacher. It stands to reason she would present herself this way—her mother is a retired elementary school teacher, and her father was an elementary school principal.
Alluding to the Disney higher-ups' history of keeping ABC executives on a short leash, I ask Sweeney if she really is the boss at ABC. "I am," she says plainly. "I read everything that you read," she continues, referring to newspaper coverage of the network's corporate foibles over the past decade. "But I wasn't here when all that was going on. My relationship with Bob [Iger] and Michael [Eisner] today is the same I had before I took over at ABC. I was comfortable soliciting their opinions, their advice. I'm very comfortable in the world of 'What do you think? I want to show you this early. I want to talk to you about this because I'm stuck.' That's the relationship I had with them before, and that's the relationship I have today."
Turning to the recent travails at ABC, Sweeney retains her equanimity. "Nobody loves being in fourth place," she says. "But there's something very motivating about the desire to get out of fourth. There is a level of commitment that feels good, and I think it comes from what we've been through and believing this network is better than fourth."
Taking over ABC is a sort of homecoming for Sweeney, who worked as a page for the network in the fall of 1978, while she was a student at the all-women College of New Rochelle. She worked on Good Morning America and World News Tonight and The $10,000 Pyramid, whose grand prize actually meant something in the days before Regis Philbin started throwing seven figures around.
Growing up in Kingston, New York, Sweeney had always wanted to be a teacher. It was, after all, the family business. But she found she liked working in television. And so, after getting a master's degree in education at Harvard, she returned to New York, where in January of 1981 she landed an entry-level job with Nickelodeon, a new cable station that ran commercial-free children's programming.
"When she first came to me, she was supposed to be my assistant," says Geraldine Laybourne, then a manager at Nickelodeon and now the chairman and CEO of Oxygen Media. "She thought she could type eighty words a minute. In reality, she could type eight. Within a week I realized I needed to find another spot for her. It was the fastest promotion in the history of television."
It was easy to move Sweeney to a new position quickly, because in 1981 cable television was the Wild West—full of explorers who'd been shut out of the powerhouse networks and now found themselves alone on a plot of land with nothing to do but build a new life for themselves, not knowing if the rest of America would follow. Started as a collaboration between Warner Communications and American Express, Nickelodeon was quickly overshadowed by its higher-profile sister channel, MTV. (Today many pop-culture historians look back to "Video Killed the Radio Star," the first song to play as a music video on MTV, as having changed television forever.) But in many ways Nickelodeon was far more important than MTV. Nickelodeon sent executives like Sweeney out to schools, where they found a generation that had been talked down to for too many years and couldn't stomach another "after-school special" or another episode of Scooby-Doo. We (I count myself one of them) wanted something better, something that understood our sense of humor, that didn't force-feed us Alvin and the Chipmunks. And soon, in Nickelodeon, we had it. We had it in the skits and in the green slime dumped on kids' heads on You Can't Do That on Television, and later in the messy exploits of the game show Double Dare.
"Nickelodeon had a show called Are You Afraid of the Dark?," Sweeney recalls. "And I had done the co-production on it. I walked into the family room and saw my son watching it, and I said, 'Oh, you're watching Are You Afraid of the Dark?' I sat down on the couch, and he said, 'Mom, you can't be here. This is kids-only weekend. This is the place only kids go,' and he chanted back all the things I had helped write. And I said, 'I have every right to be here! I did the financing on this!' And he said, 'What's financing?'"
The morning following her husband's graduation from law school at Fordham in 1993, Sweeney got a call from Murdoch. He wanted to have lunch with her. Would she come? Within a few days Murdoch had asked her to start a new cable channel for him. Unlike the cable channels of the previous decade, it would be for the networks' audience—not kids or niche viewers but adults aged eighteen to forty-nine. It would have seven hours a day of live programming. A collectibles show. A pet show. Did she want in?
Sweeney left Nickelodeon a week later, and with only a desk and a chair and as yet no staff, she began to build the cable network. At first it was a very bad network. This was a long way from becoming the FX of The Shield and Nip/Tuck—daring, nearly R-rated shows for the viewer tired of Law & Order. But it was a network nonetheless. On June 1, 1994, FX debuted in 18 million cable-connected homes, the biggest launch in industry history.
Although not an early success by any conventional measure of programming quality, FX was important for cable, because it was one of the cornerstones of the medium's second generation—the one that brought ESPN2 and Home & Garden Television into our lives. If our collective viewing habits had been bent by the cable programming of the 1980s, they were sliced, diced, minced, chopped, and reprocessed into millions of pieces by the cable programming of the 1990s. And FX was important for Sweeney, because she'd shown that in a year's time she could take a concept, albeit a loony one, and give it form.
Sweeney's next job proved that she could take an existing—but struggling—cable network and make it a success. In 1996 the Disney Channel had for most of its history been a premium channel, like HBO—anyone wanting to watch it had to pay extra. Indeed, although the channel's modernized Mickey Mouse Club would, for what it's worth, launch the careers of both Britney Spears and Christina Aguilera, its viewership was limited by the premium fee—which its programming gave no good reason to pay. Making Disney a premium channel served to funnel kids to Nickelodeon and, when they were old enough, to MTV.
That began to change in the early 1990s, when Disney started trying to place the channel in basic cable packages, and it changed further with a decision made by Michael Ovitz, whose brief and tumultuous tenure as Disney's president has become part of Hollywood lore. In 1996 Ovitz lured Geraldine Laybourne from Nickelodeon to head the Disney/ABC Cable Group. Shortly thereafter Laybourne called her former assistant Sweeney, at FX, to ask if she would head the Disney Channel and help rebuild its connection to kids—a connection that Laybourne and Sweeney had, ironically, spent all those years at Nickelodeon working to sever.
Sweeney brought her colleagues Eleo Hensleigh and Richard Ross with her to Disney. (They had both followed her from Nickelodeon to FX.) What they discovered when they arrived was a vision even more muddled than the one they had left behind at FX. There were concert specials with Travis Tritt and Boyz II Men. There were documentaries hosted by Jessica Tandy and Hume Cronyn. And for the kids? How about something called Audubon's World of Animals?
Sweeney and her team ultimately decided to develop a Disney Channel that was separate from the Disney brand. "This was like heresy," Hensleigh says. "We were just supposed to be the compliant partner, their outlet for covering all things Disney." The Disney Channel couldn't be Nickelodeon—because Nickelodeon, as demonstrated by Sweeney's own son, was for kids only. No, it had to be about families, because that's what Disney stands for. But it would be what Sweeney deems "kid-driven family": programming that kids could watch and adults could stand. And driving that family would be girls aged nine to fourteen. The channel, Sweeney and company decided, would live or die with the "tween."
"We were doing focus groups, talking to kids about their lives, about what they watched," Sweeney says. "And what we were finding were kids who felt too old for Nickelodeon and too young for MTV. So there was this whole group that weren't little kids. But they certainly weren't full-blown teenagers either. It was homing in on the middle school experience. And I was living it at home. So I'm eternally grateful for Even Stevens and Lizzie McGuire."
It's not clear whose star rose faster—Hilary Duff's (Duff plays the channel's franchise character, Lizzie McGuire) or Sweeney's. When Laybourne left to start the Oxygen Network, Sweeney took over as head of the Disney/ABC Cable Group. In this role she flourished—and so, as a consequence, did the Disney Channel. Under Sweeney's stewardship it became the third-highest-rated cable channel in America, available in 84 million homes and producing $500 million a year for the company. She also helped launch twenty-two international versions. In 2000 Sweeney launched SoapNet—the twenty-four-hour soap-opera station that ABC had been planning since before its merger with Disney. And last year she was given oversight of the ABC Family Channel, which the company had bought from Murdoch for $5 billion in 2001, only to find itself saddled with a low-ranked channel that, because of a provision in its charter, is obligated to run daily episodes of Pat Robertson's religious program The 700 Club in perpetuity. During her tenure as Disney's cable chief, in short, Sweeney demonstrated the ability to make a moribund channel successful and proved again that she can effectively create a network from scratch.
But fixing ABC is a much bigger challenge than anything she did for the Disney cable group. Sweeney has shown an extraordinary ability to tap into what a kid, or even a tween, wants, but now she must find out what the eighteen-to-forty-nine set will watch—and not just watch but run home to watch.
"It's an enormous challenge for anyone," Fred Silverman told me. "It would be an enormous challenge for Superman and Batman and Catwoman all put together. She's walked into a mess."
"Michael and I would like to meet you tonight." That's how Sweeney's ABC adventure began. It was a Friday evening last March, and Sweeney was on the phone with Bob Iger when she heard him say those words. A few hours later, sitting in Eisner's office, she was asked to take control of the broadcast network—in addition to, not instead of, her responsibilities as president of the ABC Cable Group and the Disney Channel. "Tell me more," she said.
Both men responded by talking about their own stints at ABC. Eisner was a top executive at the network before joining Disney, in 1984. Iger had been with ABC since 1974, working as a studio supervisor before moving over to ABC Sports and then on up the corporate ladder; in 1994 he became ABC's president and COO. They talked about how much they loved ABC, what it had done for them in their careers and as people, how it had helped shape their understanding of the media and the consumer.
But Sweeney had questions, which she asked over the following weeks. How did they think about news and daytime and prime time? What did they think about distribution? How would she manage these two disparate entities, cable and broadcast? What, precisely, did they see as ABC's future?
Eleo Hensleigh, by now ABC's executive vice-president for worldwide brand strategy, recalls walking through wintry New York streets in March with Sweeney, discussing these questions. Would Eisner and Iger really let Sweeney reinvent television, blurring the distinction between cable and broadcast? Or would she merely be the caretaker of two separate divisions?
Traditional broadcasters have always had a jaundiced view of cable executives, deeming them small-time (albeit sometimes profit-making) players who deliver only to the few, whereas the broadcast executives feed the masses. But at the Disney Channel, Sweeney laid the foundation for what she intends to do at ABC: find neglected viewers and create for them a philosophy of programming—a sensibility, or set of traits, that appeals to a broad swath of them and that runs through all of ABC's signature shows. And since her purview is more expansive than just the broadcast network, she intends to lead as many of these viewers as she can to the multitude of cable channels she also has at her command.
"Will they let you have the whole of television?" Hensleigh recalls asking her friend. Were they going to give her the authority?
"Clearly, she got that confirmation," Hensleigh says, "and she said yes."
"Are you going into my house?" Eva Longoria asks, standing in the driveway of her "home" on the Universal Studio lot.
"We're going into your house," replies Michael Edelstein, the executive producer of Desperate Housewives, the new ABC show in which Longoria stars.
"To see my Andy Warhol?" Longoria says. "Whose idea was that? That's fabulous."
In truth, it is a little fabulous: three ersatz Warhol portraits of Longoria lend verisimilitude to the interior of the house that her character, Gabrielle, a spoiled former model, inhabits on a mythical cul-de-sac called Wisteria Lane. You don't see much of this in Burbank anymore. Most of the backlots containing actual neighborhoods—with real houses where you could film a show like this—are gone. The same could be said of the show itself, which is about four women finding ways to comfort one another while at the same time plotting against their neighbors. It sometimes seems that every other TV drama today involves either finding a missing person or solving a crime using the fingerprints left on a matchbook.
Actually, Desperate Housewives is a throwback in many ways: it's a combination of Dallas and Dynasty, with a touch of the movie American Beauty thrown in. In the pilot's opening sequence the series' omniscient narrator blows her brains out. One character tries to kill her husband with a salad laced with onions (to which he's highly allergic) when he says he wants a divorce. Another character sneaks into the home of a neighbor, who she believes is sleeping with the new man on the block, only to accidentally light the house on fire. ABC has invested heavily in the show, in both production and marketing dollars.
The neighborhood seems real as we walk through it—the houses, the rosebushes, the suburban absence of sound. Longoria is the only cast member present as she rehearses a scene in which she tries to bribe a little girl who discovered her character having sex with the gardener.
"It's been a challenge," Edelstein says, as we sit in the rattan chairs on Gabrielle's porch. "How far do you go with a show like this? When do you pull back? When do you take a chance? It's really a challenge. In a strange way, I think it's where the network is at this moment."
"Les Moonves did not turn CBS around in a year," Edelstein continues, referring to the former actor who went on to become the highly effective CEO of CBS Television Network. "It probably took five years to make the network and reshape it into what it's become. I always think that running a network is like steering a very, very big ship with a very small rudder, and you have to keep cranking on the wheel to have it come back around if it doesn't do that right away. If you can make one good show a year for five years, that will completely change the network. And it's hard to do that when you don't have people already there ready to watch."
As we talk, a couple of little girls sit looking bored. Edelstein explains that they're stand-ins for the actress who actually confronts Longoria's character. "Stunt girls," he says, looking at them through his sunglasses, his feet propped up on a glass table. "What a funny world we live in."
Although Sweeney now commands the ABC ship, the job of steering falls to Steve McPherson, whom Swee- ney plucked from Touchstone Television (where he had developed CSI and Scrubs for ABC, only to see them go to other networks) to run ABC's prime-time entertainment division. It is McPherson who schedules the shows, and who looks for the hits around which to build the network.
What impressed Sweeney about McPherson, what led her to hire him, was his straightforwardness. He was willing to tell her what he liked and hated, and what he thought the problems were. Speaking to him as a reporter, one finds those same qualities: he owns up to envy of a show he's not involved with but wishes he were (Survivor); he speaks frankly about a show ABC put on the air last season that was too arty for its own good (Line of Fire, about FBI agents trying to bring down a crime syndicate in Richmond, Virginia); and he openly criticizes ABC's biggest tactical mistake of the past decade (airing Who Wants to Be a Millionaire? four nights a week). Moreover, he understands, as Sweeney does, that what ails ABC will not be cured with a single show.
"You need to start small and start improving time periods," McPherson says, explaining his prime-time strategy. "You need to have an identifiable strength on your schedule—whether that's a specific night or it's a block of shows or it's a two-night period—and build out from there, as opposed to 'How do you get the overall rating of the network up tomorrow?'"
"I am a big admirer of Les Moonves and the way he built CBS," McPherson says. "It took years. He consistently stuck to his guns in terms of the creative he believed in. He had a consistency in his schedule; he used his breakout shows well but didn't overextend them. Survivor is a great example. It would have been easy for them at the time to say, 'Let's put Survivor on the air five times a week.' And it would have been quick money. But it would have been incredibly destructive to their schedule. And there is a lesson in that: believe in the creative; be passionate about it; stick to your guns in terms of what your strategy is, and take the time to build shows appropriately, and don't go for the quick fix."
Sweeney and McPherson took over at what seemed an odd time—just before the network was to set its fall schedule, and only weeks before they would have to present it to advertisers in New York. "I thought it was very important to have the people who were presenting the fall schedule to the outside world—to the advertisers and shareholders, our public so to speak—be the people who would be responsible for it," Bob Iger told me. "It made no sense to have people presenting the schedule who were not going to be around to carry it out, even though there were elements of that schedule which were vestiges of a prior regime. I also wanted Anne and Steve to be part of the scheduling process, because even though it seems like trial by fire, I thought it was important for them to get that experience going into the job."
Trial by fire it has been: within a day of starting the job Sweeney was viewing the shows that would potentially represent ABC this fall. Scheduling came next, followed by the "Upfronts" in New York. Then there was a five-year-plan meeting and a meeting in Anaheim with ABC affiliates, the vast majority of which are owned by companies other than Disney.
During the latter meeting Sweeney faced tough questions from a group of broadcasters whose revenues are dependent on how the national network does; they were understandably unhappy about ABC's poor ratings. "The four, five, six, and eleven o'clock newscasts are our main focus," Deb McDermott, the president of Young Broadcasting and the chair of the ABC Television Affiliate Board of Governors, told me. "That's what we do locally, where we sell our advertising, and [network] prime time has a huge impact on that."
McDermott says she was impressed with Sweeney's poise during her presentation to the affiliates in Anaheim. What impressed her more, though, was the speed with which Sweeney helped the news division launch the experimental ABC News Now: fourteen weeks of around-the-clock coverage of the presidential campaign, including both party conventions and election night. The network offers this twenty-four-hour news channel to its affiliates and cable systems.
Over coffee in his Washington office the week after the Democratic National Convention, David Westin, the head of ABC's News Division, told me, "When we proposed what became ABC News Now, which I like to think of as our foray into the future, Anne could understand that immediately, could embrace it. But even more than that, she could ask for assistance from people who deal with cable mostly, who work for [the Disney-owned] ESPN and Disney Channel. She could cross over that line. Whereas in the old world the television network was on one side of it, and the cable was on the other. She can cross over. She's well positioned that way. She has the training and the expertise and she has the jurisdiction—she can break down some of the walls and think creatively how programming can be distributed across various media, not just one."
That's evident a few weeks later, during a teleconference that Sweeney leads in late August. As she sits with her people in Los Angeles, and Westin sits with his people in New York, they talk about what worked and what didn't on ABC News Now's maiden voyage, during the convention in Boston, and about how the medium gave Peter Jennings a chance to relax in the same way that Diane Sawyer seemed to relax when she went to Good Morning America. They also talk about the enthusiasm of the junior talent for the opportunity to strut their stuff, albeit briefly, on ABC News Now.
Then Sweeney says, "The more we talk about this, the less I think about how this is distributed and the more I realize there's been such a blurring of cable and broadcast. Instead of a world where we're constantly tailoring to these groups, they're all interested in some of the things we've talked about at the table today. They're all interested in the technology we're using or the response of the talent or the things we're going to use in New York [at the Republican convention]. It's almost like it turned into one world we need to get to and, in fact, we're going there."
"Well," Westin says, looking at her on a flat-screen panel from the other side of the country, "that's the world we need to get to, there's no question about that."
But what is that world, exactly? And what is ABC, now that it is no longer one third of what Robert Thompson, the director of Syracuse University's Center for the Study of Popular Television, calls "the vase of American television"—now that it is instead only one of the hundreds of shards produced when people like Sweeney helped shove that vase from its shelf? And what, for that matter, is the fate of advertiser-driven networks generally, now that we have technologies like TiVo and On Demand, which are designed to let viewers avoid commercials entirely?
"Advertising is already evolving along with the way people receive television," Sweeney says when I ask her about this. "So I'm not really afraid of this." One possible solution Sweeney sees to the TiVo problem is a return to television's early days, when shows like The Texaco Star Theater, Kraft Television Theater, and The Colgate Comedy Hour had their sponsors woven into the fabric of the program, not fractured into thirty-second spot advertisements. Sponsorships and product placements may be the future of television advertising. "We hit that moment in Extreme Makeover: Home Edition," she says, "where they say, 'Six Kenmore appliances, twenty-six Craftsman tools, one happy family' every Sunday. It's so beautifully integrated, and sends such a message out for Sears, but it is so integral with what we're doing with that show, that it feels like a win-win."
Nothing seems to rattle Sweeney. While she was making her introductory remarks at the network's summer press tour in July, standing between two large video screens showing the logos of all the networks she was responsible for, the logos suddenly vanished and, unaccountably, were replaced by a scene from FX's Nip/Tuck, in which a woman wearing only a black lace bra and panties holds a knife up to a plastic surgeon, whom she has tied to a bed.
"Some of my new friends," Sweeney said calmly when she caught sight of the scene out of the corner of her eye. "And none of them appearing on the Disney—ABC Television group of networks."
"I never see her stressed out," says her friend Maria Shriver, the first lady of California. "I never see her snap at anyone, never see her wear her job. She's unbelievably even-keeled."
"I have trouble watching this one," Sweeney says, as we watch a trailer for Lost, an upcoming ABC show about plane-crash survivors trapped on an island. In the first few seconds we see a scene of the back of a plane ripping off and then a shot of the stranded passengers surveying the wreckage around them as one of them says, "We're a thousand miles off course. They're looking for us in the wrong place."
The day before, Disney had announced its third-quarter earnings, declaring a 20 percent increase in profits over the same period last year, largely owing to an increase in revenues from the company's theme parks and ESPN. In a conference call with industry analysts Bob Iger said the company was "hopeful and expectant that our new management team at ABC will take us back up to first or second in ratings over time."
When I relay these comments to Sweeney, she says, "We all have our moments when we're in the cellar. But there's a lot of satisfaction in getting back up." And then, lowering her voice to a sharp whisper, she says, "And that's where I'm going. I'm not staying down here. No. Definitely not."